Saturday, June 30, 2012

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Istanbul Passage: A Novel

A man, filled with good intentions, is caught in the jaws of the competing and intersecting interests of global powers in Istanbul after World War II. Istanbul is the bridge between north and south in Europe, and between West and East. It has always been a place of great intrigue and mystery, filled with industrialists and spies. By setting his mystery here after the war, Kanon capitalizes on the reader’s sense of dislocation. We are familiar with the war, but we know little about what happened shortly after, when hundreds of thousands of Jews needed resettlement from Reich-controlled countries and war-time spies were tying up loose ends, chasing double agents and moles.

Istanbul was a port through which some of the refugees streamed, bought from their oppressors by well-meaning Jewish citizens with the intention of giving them passage to some other country where they could set up a new life. Palestine was one of these destinations, by no means the obvious choice.

This is the first novel of Kanon’s I’ve read, but I have taken note of his books and know that his particular interest has been the war years in Europe. He flawlessly captures that insular American consulate feeling, the wide-eyed naiveté gradually devolving into a slight disdain fueled by lack of understanding. The intrigue of a city of spies comes through clearly as well, the confusion and the calculation as one undercover spy after another is picked off, leaving the innocent (and the reader) to figure out what happened and who is responsible and what can be done.

Kanon’s style is telegraphic, abrupt, pointillist when describing a man’s thoughts…rather like the way we talk in our own heads when walking down the street. We don’t think in complete sentences when we are noticing street action. Only words and phrases come to us: red hat, sidling walk, cold, sun. Together these can add up to a larger understanding that we must explain in sentences to another. And there was my difficulty. Not only was Kanon noticing and attaching value to things differently than I might have, he didn’t always give me a complete sentence in which to process his progress. I got the gist, and I got used to it, but it certainly added to the mystery of the piece that I couldn’t completely trust the judgment of the main character and I suspected everyone. The mystery his language produced was akin to that fog of incomprehension his characters were laboring under—who knew what and when, and who held the cards? After my initial reserve I entered fully into Kanon’s vision, and he managed to crank the stress level quite high enough to impel this reader through to the end.

Istanbul comes through clearly: colorful, exotic, dangerous. The sly knowingness in the Turkish character makes the people attractive and descriptions of the city and the Bosporus are irresistible. Makes you want to book passage. Now.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton

The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1)

Well. Ian Hamilton makes forensic accounting possibly the most dangerous profession going. After spending a couple of days with this first in a series starring Ava Lee, damsel extraordinaire, I’d have to say he has a winner concept and style that is sure to keep readers interested.

Ava Lee, Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant and entrepreneur, recovers stolen funds. The story is told with details that make the theft, and the countries she visits if not entirely plausible, certainly an entertaining fiction. I loved learning things about international banking practices and international trade financing that I did not know—and watching her manipulate the truth in service to the ends.

Ava, talented though she is, ran into bad men and roadblocks that challenged even her exquisite poise and capabilities. Straightforward and willing to compromise when required, Ava was occasionally obliged to kick, punch, or otherwise subdue her attackers physically when her clever international financial machinations did not work as planned. Skilled in the legendary bak mei techniques, she sometimes may have sustained injury, but was victorious in the end.

Bak Mei is defined in Wikipedia as “Bak Mei (Chinese: 白眉; pinyin: Bái Méi; literally "White Eyebrows") is said to have been one of the legendary Five Elders — survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple by the Qing Dynasty imperial regime (1644–1912). Bak Mei has been fictionalized in films, most recently portrayed by Gordon Liu in the Hollywood film Kill Bill, Vol 2." It is a “secret, formerly forbidden art, a form of self-defense that is purely functional, designed to inflict damage. And it can be lethal when applied to the extreme.”

Our girl wins the day and wins the chance to travel the world in search of new transgressors. This series is definitely worth a look. Don’t be put off by all the references to clothing labels and Chinese ways of eating and drinking. All this is close enough to actual Chinese culture to pass muster and to inspire in this reader at least a sense of curiosity about how the author had the nerve to create a young female lesbian Chinese character who clearly is very far from his own older white male former-diplomat reality. I’d say Hamilton succeeded admirably, leaving some wiggle room for a few guffaws and the suspension of disbelief.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill

Slash And Burn (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #8)

Readers meeting Dr. Siri and his cohorts for the first time in this eighth in the Siri series might very well wonder what they had stumbled into. Farce, cross-dressing, and the supernatural are not characteristics we instinctively think of when reviewing our knowledge of communist Laos, but Cotterill shows us that Laos has it all. A world more remote from everyday American life would be hard to find, but Cotterill manages to make a seventy-plus-year-old government coroner the best guide to Lao life.

Usually Lao communist government policies are the target of Cotterill’s acerbic wit, but this book introduces a group of Americans searching for the body of a downed pilot. The target thus shifts, and Cotterill uses history against the Americans. Carpet bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War era left scars on the country, killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of villagers, and led to the discovery of gold in the mountainous bombed areas of eastern Laos. (It‘s true, according to the New York Times in 2002.)

We are also given an outsiders’ view of the American election cycle in which senators buy their seats and fathers murder their own sons to further their personal fortunes or political ambitions. One could argue it looks like that to outsiders, particularly to outsiders viewing our current elections politics and who do not subscribe to American reliance on self as opposed to family, community, or larger social groups. But it is all done with a sense of parody and the absurd foremost.

One does have to wonder, however, how much the Lao characters are Lao in name only and how much a western mindset is overlaid their thoughts and actions. I have always wondered this about the series and can’t help but suspect these folks are too cosmopolitan and worldly-wise, despite their ages, for a country as closed and psychically distant as Laos. It’s all in Cotterill’s mind, and what a mind it is! Great fiction here, folks: Take the trip.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding

Harbach had me laughing by page five and cheering for these folks by page ten. But he wrote a long book and unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last. The book has lots of words, lots of stories, lots of characters. Half would have been nicer, more discreet and literary, but instead we got a somewhat bloated narrative illustrating the maturing process that many humans experience. If I say it was a well-written bloating, would that matter?

For instance, Harbach captures completely the absurd descent into anger that occurs between two people in a relationship, desultorily exchanging half-serious barbs which gradually become pointed, then toxic, then positively vicious. Harbach’s writing is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen in that he uses a huge scale but the people are still lifelike, if not completely believable. It’s just that Harbach appears to lose the point part-way through, which diminishes his accomplishment somewhat.

The chronology we recognize is as follows: First, we think we might be “special” at something, then we discover that the world is filled with “special” folks, and finally we realize what “special” means and wonder if we can handle success. It’s a familiar story and Harbach tackles it with great enthusiasm and even skill. But the story takes on a life of its own, and introduces relatives and friends and even neighbors and becomes unwieldy. Going against the grain of reviewers who thought this a masterpiece, I have to say that I think this book might have better served had it been half its length. Henry lost his mojo. We get it. Do we need to wallow in the aftermath quite so much? This reader felt abandoned. The author was off fighting wars on other shores while I stood bereft on this one.

Perhaps college-aged kids will find this book a revelation, but anyone older has little time for wallowing in failure. We’ve all experienced too much of it to have much time for a long wallow. For those who strive and take risks, failure is just the flip side of success. It’s part of the process. Both have their good points, both have their bad. If we don’t get over whatever we get dealt, we don’t move on. This is the art of fielding after all, isn’t it?

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Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles

The wars of Troy bring home the myth of Achilles, the greatest warrior the world has ever known. Achilles died in Troy, but it was his intervention that ended that long, tortuous conflict begun to return Helen to her husband Menelaus when she was stolen by Paris of Troy. As one might expect, the old story apparently has more than one interpretation, and Miller takes advantage of these discrepancies to make the story her own.

I listened to the audiofile of this book very ably narrated by Frazer Douglas, and enjoyed the oral storytelling tradition long heralded by mythmakers. Miller’s story starts slowly, developing the loving relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, and builds to the Trojan War and Achilles’ final end. Truthfully, I could have done with a greatly truncated romantic introduction, but I am sure this added to the appeal of the book for some, and gave doubters time to lose their inhibitions about reading of ancient times.

One is awash in familiar names by the end of the story, which feels very modern and accessible. Intimate details about Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Hector makes the book live. This is entirely appropriate as these myths are meant to live and we should be reminded of them again and again as they still tell us of human greed, goodness, and greatness. I must say, however, that I will never again think of Achilles without imagining a young Brad Pitt as our hero, for he took the role of Achilles in the 2004 movie Troy and Madeline Miller’s descriptions mirror Pitt’s lavish gifts admirably.

This book has won the 2012 Orange Prize, a UK cash prize awarded for originality, excellence and accessibility in fiction by women.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

Echoes from the Dead (The Öland Quartet #1)

This novel has the best sense of place I’ve read in a long time. Theorin paints with a few words scattered through his dialog: sparse yellow-brown grass in a small meadow, low, gnarled juniper and moss-covered stones, wind, cold, limestone beaches, pointy firs. He writes of Öland Island, off the southeastern coast of Sweden. I waited until I finished the book to look up photographs, but you may want to have a look now. It is a large, scrubby island landscape with the ruins of a most intriguing castle.

The island is an inspired choice for a mystery setting because it has small year-round communities isolated in winter. Residents tend to be hardy and self-sufficient, relying on the ocean and the island to eke out a living. Theorin’s characters have closed personalities, with lots hidden, even from family. When a psychopath, Nils, is born into the midst of a small community, the group bears its troubles silently until Nils has to be corralled.

Theorin has made a series out of his mysteries set on Öland. It is the island that is reprised, not the characters. On his website, Theorin tells us that he wants to write a quartet of novels, one for each season of the year. Echoes of the Dead is the autumn novel. His second novel, The Darkest Room is set in the winter, and was published in 2008 to wild acclaim. Theorin’s third novel in the quartet, The Quarry, has been translated and was published last year in the UK. It should be available shortly in the U.S. An insightful reviewer has commented that Theorin is the least conventional of Swedish crime writers, and that this can be a disappointment to some, but that the “dailiness” of his novels gives readers an understanding of ordinary people’s lives. This may be the my favorite thing about these titles.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith

Blue Shoes and Happiness (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series #7)

I have just realized I have never reviewed any of Alexander McCall Smith's series, though I have read from each one. McCall Smith's series are primers in "how to be kind." He calmly and rationally helps us to negotiate everyday conundrums that plague us and make us anxious and bitter. The thoughtful reactions he puts in the voice of Mma Ramotswe are kind and comforting, her solutions sensitive and gracious.

If blue shoes can bring happiness, it may be worth owning them even if they are too small. And, there is evil in the world, but most people want to do the right thing. It’s just that people are weak. One should recognize one’s weaknesses: if they are inconsequential or will make your life (or the lives of those around you) a misery to change, it may be better to just live with it.

Mma Ramotswe is a forgiving woman. She doesn’t chide her assistant for small failings, like purchasing blue shoes that are too small, nor does she agonize over her own “traditionally-built” size. She knows she should diet, but if she wants (and deserves!) cake, is it so very wrong to have a small piece?

Every book in this series is a little vacation for the mind. We are given time to consider problems that many of us face, and see how elegant solutions can be found that satisfy. The voice of Lisette Lecat defines the series. Her voice is such a perfect vehicle for the writing that I prefer to listen to these books published as downloadable files by Recorded Books.

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Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland

Moonlight Downs (Emily Tempest, #1)

I am thrilled to see a writer of Hyland’s gifts create a series with an Aboriginal heroine called Emily Tempest. Hyland’s use of language is so specific to the region that readers unschooled in the language of the Australian bush might not be able to comprehend. There is a glossary--for Aboriginal words and Australian slang—but still. For me, however, it is pure bliss.

Strains of music can be heard throughout the book and one is tempted to listen while reading to those artists mentioned to see what it is about each one that defines character. Lucinda Williams, the Louvin Brothers, Paul Kelly, the Warumpis, Slim Dusty, Nick Cave… If one has downloaded the book to an ereader, one can crank up the Pandora® app, select these artists for the background, plug in earphones, and get down to it.

Emily Tempest is half white Australian and half native Aborigine, which gives her entree to both circles. Descriptions of her native ground do not stint on the realities of bush dwellers’ (white and black) unusual habits and habitats. But she also has a fascination with geology, and that clinches my certainty that this is more than just a very funny mystery about an underreported culture—it is a mystery that goes to the very heart of Australia itself. The discussion of geology raises the level of discourse and makes one’s mind wander to the unique characteristics of the continent and its inhabitants.

Author Adrian Hyland won the Ned Kelly Award for Crime Fiction in 2008 for this debut novel and first book in a series. It suffered a title change when it was published in the United States to Moonlight Downs from the Australian title Diamond Dove. Since that early success, Hyland has produced another title in the series: Gunshot Road. It is likewise published in the United States by Soho Press and both are available as ebooks.

Hyland himself worked in Central Australia for ten years as a community developer in remote Aboriginal communities, so knows whereof he speaks. He has a clear eye and sense of the absurd that allows us to revel in a remarkable indigenous culture. The beauty of the Australian bush comes through strongly—its riches and treasures are celebrated. Hyland also wrote Kinglake-350 about the devastating bushfires in the state of Victoria in 2009, and which is considered a masterpiece of reportage. It has been shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Nonfiction in 2012.

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