Friday, December 21, 2012

Phantoms of Breslau-Marek Krajewski

Phantoms of Breslau-Marek Krajewski

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 272
gender: M
nationality: Poland
year: 2005
Novel in translation (Eberhard Mock series)

It is 1919 in Breslau. The hideously battered bodies of four young sailors are discovered on an island in the River Oder. When Criminal Assistant Mock arrives at the scene to investigate, he discovers a note addressed to him, asking him to confess his sins and to become a believer. As he endeavours to piece together the elements of this brutal crime, Mock combs the brothels and drinking dens of Breslau and is drawn into an insidious game: it seems that anyone he questions during the course of the investigation is destined to become the murderer's next victim

At times this Baroque novel is a discomforting read since all the women are prostitutes and called by every name. In fact the entire profession is constantly referred to in the most derogatory terms possible. This contempt mainly flows from Mock but is strangely overlaid with regret and empathy. But that faded into the background mainly because of the fascinating Mock, the detective, and because it adds to the atmosphere of war haunted (corrupt) and newly minted (decadent) Poland. This gritty background marks this hard boiled detective novel as fairly unusual. I was reminded at times of the vivid atmosphere of Red April though of course the novels are set in very different places/times/situations-they are similar in that despite the grislyness of everything you still read avidly. (Also, both share disturbing cover art.)

Mock, himself, is just fascinating. He is haunted by numerous personal demons in the form of nightmares-which cause him to drink constantly. He was active during the war and from that has a bitter and cynical view of humankind and a special disdain towards any former informers. The narrative is as jaded and twisted as Mock's thinking and the two play off each other that makes for a compelling read as Mock violently alternates between worry, love, and his demons as he encounters corruption and decadence. In fact, the narrative is so vivid, it's almost decadent in its own right.

Mock's narrative is interspersed with the rantings of the murderer. As the book goes on these rantings are increasingly insane, disjointed, and difficult to understand. This is the occult part of the novel and it remains unknowable. Remarkably, you literally have no idea who the murderer himself is until the very last chapter which makes this truly a detective novel.

I seek to read more Eberhard Mock novels especially since this leaves you with a cliffhanger of an ending, not of the plot itself-that is solved- but of Mock's character.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sickness-Alberto Barrera Tyszka

La Enfermedad (Sickness)-Alberto Barrera Tyszka

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 151
gender: M
nationality: Venezuela
year: 2006
Novel in Spanish

Dr. Miranda is faced with a tragedy: his father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only a few weeks to live. He is also faced with a dilemma: How does one tell his father he is dying?

The main bread and butter of this intense novella is the tragic story of Dr. Miranda who has to tell his father he will die soon. The father and son dynamic and relationship was pitch perfect. There's an inherent awkwardness with the soon to die and its awkwardness tempered with confusion because no matter how much you love the person you never know what to say and do. I wonder if Barrera has lost his father because so much echoed my own experience...which made this a bit difficult to read for me. It's all done beautifully though in flowing prose and literary intelligence that remains not overly intellectual. This is a novella exploring our ideas about mortality.

Intertwined with Dr. Miranda's dilemma of dealing with cancer and his father is the story of one of his hypochondriac patients, Ernesto, and his secretary. This is also a story of lonely people who get wrapped up in compassion and see in each other reflections of themselves.

I read this in Spanish because I picked this up at random from the library's tiny Spanish section but I imagine the writing could translate nicely into a clear English prose.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Red April-Santiago Roncagliolo

Red April-Santiago Roncagliolo

the facts
satisfaction: side/up
pages: 271
gender: M
nationality: Peru
year: 2006
Novel in translation

Red April evokes Holy Week during a cruel, bloody, and terrifying time in Peru's history, shocking for its corrosive mix of assassination, bribery, intrigue, torture, and enforced disappearance - a war between grim, ideologically driven terrorism and morally bankrupt government counterinsurgence. Mother-haunted, wife-abandoned, literature-loving, quietly eccentric Felix Chacaltana Saldivar is a hapless, by-the-book, unambitious prosecutor living in Lima. Until now he has lived a life in which nothing exceptionally good or bad has ever happened to him. But, inexplicably, he has been put in charge of a bizarre and horrible murder investigation. As it unfolds by propulsive twists and turns -full of paradoxes and surprises- Saldivar is compelled to confront what happens to a man and society when death becomes the only certainty.

I found it hard to get into at first but I'm not sure why because once I fell into the flow, I couldn't put it down. It starts out with some comedy in which there is optimism and clear signs that this is a country to love but then proceeds to kill all that off. This is not quite a detective novel. I'm no stranger to gritty and tough-to-read books but this is definitely amongst the most gritty. It is set in one of the most violent places, Ayacucho in Peru, where the communist party began its bloody reign of terror in 1980. In the book, these terrorists are still terrorizing but are more swept under the carpet. The deaths are described in detail and they're grisly. There's rape and bombs and animal cruelty. This is one of the worst periods in Peruvian/Latin American history and you feel it deep in your gut while reading Red April.

Saldivar is completely unable to handle the situations he encounters as he's straight laced to the point of inflexibility and his ability to have personal relationships is so stunted it's ludicrous. In a way, he reflects the country which tries to handle the situation but fails to do so. He is haunted by his mother, history, memory, and blood. It's a rough read since it's unrelentingly bleak.

You could take at its face value and simply read it as a rather entertaining (for violence-liking sensibilities) read or delve into its rather intelligent core (the mystery is in fact solved). I put the sideways first because I spent far too long just horrified by the book but in the end, I appreciated it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

WWW Trilogy-Robert Sawyer

WWW Trilogy: Wake, Watch, Wonder-Robert Sawyer

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 354, 350, 336
gender: M
nationality: Canada
year: 2009, 2010, 2011
Novels- WWW Series

Wake: "Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math, and blind. When she receives an implant to restore her sight, instead of seeing reality she perceives the landscape of the World Wide Web-where she makes contact with a mysterious consciousness existing only in cyberspace."b
Watch: "It calls itself Webmind. An emerging consciousness within the World Wide Web, it has befriended Caitlin Decter and grown eager to learn about her world. But Webmind has also come to the attention of WATCH, the secret United States government agency that monitors the Internet for any potential threats-and wants it purged from cyberspace."
Wonder: "Caitlin Decter discovered Webmind, the vast artificial intelligence that spontaneously emerged from the World Wide Web and changed the world-from curing cancer to easing international tensions. But the Pentagon has declared war on it, recruiting hackers to delete Webmind out of existence..."

I'm doing things differently because unusually for me, I read Wake and immediately took a bus to take Watch and Wonder out of the libraries across the city.  I never do that-I'm usually fine waiting, reading a few books in between. They were just that good. There's so much math, brilliant ideas, clever people, and interesting plotlines that it's just unbelievably good. If you like your books intelligent, this is the series for you.

I was first intrigued by the blind protagonist, Caitlin. This is all too rare in non-inspirational books, a totally blind but comfortable with it protagonist? Say it ain't so. And then she gets a truly beautiful concept of being able to see the internet with all its connections. Then a high functioning autistic who has a family and a job and you know, people just deal with it it's a deal but it's not really a big deal.

And then there's this amazing concept of a AI that becomes self-aware out of China's isolationist tactics. Mixed in all this is primate language. All of this is to explore the idea of language and interconnection. Then within all this, Sawyer is also asking questions  about power, information, the origins of consciousness, and the right to self-determination. There's humor too in all this, fighting with spam for instance.

The final novel, Wonder,  is full of action between governments and Webmind (the emergent AI). There's a great atmosphere of suspicion and tension. All told, each of these novels could have stood alone but as a trio, you develop a real sense of the science involved and so you stop thinking about it and instead focus on losing yourself into the story.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Sailor Who Fell Out of Grace with the Sea-Yukio Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell Out of Grace with the Sea-Yukio Mishima

the facts
pages: 130
gender: M
nationality: Japan
year: 1963
Novel(la) in translation

I've read Mishima before. His stories are not full of much delight but rather are twisted tales of the darker sides of people. He was popular in his time as a writer though so I suppose he in some ways reflects a post war Japan exploring boundaries and taboos. 

This novella is definitely twisted and dark as it centers around a rather perverted thirteen-year-old boy who is a bit too much in love with his mother. Thankfully no actual incestuous sex happens but consider yourself warned because this boy's corruption goes further. It all functions as a camera obscura upturning of ideas and the contrast between opposites and it's key to Mishima's densely subtle style. He divides the book into summer and winter, obsession and alienation, and numerous other stylistic devices contribute to this feeling of splitness.

This is a misanthropist and nihilist novel that pushes most events to their worst outcome. It's full of alien attitudes and so is definitely worth reading for that alone. Then there's the fact that in barely 130 pages this is such a strong and full read because between the horrible parts, there's the love story of a sailor and a widow which puts the whole thing into perspective. Give it a read because it's a tightly written book. It's poetic and beautiful without being poetic and beautiful at all mainly because some passages don't click while others resonate while nothing detracts from the whole.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Between Shades of Gray-Ruta Sepety

Between Shades of Gray-Ruta Sepety

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
nationality: USA
year: 2011
Novel, YA

Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life--until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father's prison camp.

First off, this has no relation to the latest gray bestseller. None whatsoever.

This was brutal. The simple writing cloaks the very detailed and depressing story to stay true to the reality. I'm sure we've all read YA books about the World Wars, countless Holocaust books and Nazi Germany as well as tons of American and British GIs stories and of course the whole espionage genre. Less well published are the stories of Eastern Europe and Western Asian. Here is one of them showing exactly how horrible Stalin was and how he killed 5-10 million people. Tension is racketed high from the first sentence and kept higher as Lina's journey to Siberia went on. By focusing on this girl, this family, Sepety makes the scale of the atrocities into something we can experience. And even better, Sepety balances this tension with some hope. It sounds corny to say I liked how love triumphed over the horror but within this book, it was not corny or contrived. I'd really like to recommend this book to anyone interested in the Soviets or WWII.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Appointment-Herta Müller

The Appointment-Herta Müller

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 214
gender: F
nationality: Romania
Novel in translation

"I've been summoned. Thursday, ten sharp." Thus begins a day in the life of a young factory worker during Ceausescu's totalitarian regime. She has been questioned before; this time, she believes, will be worse.

For the reader, this is a surprisingly quick read. Müller's delivery is staccato and spare and the prose does not dwell but rather matter of factly speeds the story along. The narrator however is not having a good time and the prose serves to heighten your fear for her because within those tight phrases is the story of a woman who is doing anything, anything she can to keep sane. From the counting of stains, the focusing on her good luck charms, to the recounting of her life, she is constantly erecting and strengthening the mental walls she needs to endure another interrogation.

The feeling of Ceausescu's regime (never named, nor is the country mentioned, makes this woman's story more universal) is dominating, full of officials and the downtrodden. The privations and the torture all feel quite realistically dreadful. Excellent read!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

People of the Book-Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book-Geraldine Brooks

the facts:
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 368
gender: F
nationality: Australia
year: 2008

this ambitious, electrifying work traces the harrowing journey of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century S pain. When it falls to Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, to conserve this priceless work, the series of tiny artifacts she discovers in its ancient binding-an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair-only begin to unlock its deep mysteries and unexpectedly plunges Hanna into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics.

I'm of two minds about this book. It was an entertaining read.

The parts set in the past are beautiful. The writing is strong, setting is well realized, and the tensions are strong, believable, and sensitively treated. Occasionally the ignorance of other religions seemed too much as an opportunity to show off Brooks's elementary grasp of religions but for the most part Al-Andalus, Sarajevo, Vienna, and Venice were lovely sections to be reading.

The narrator, the modern day conservator, Hanna, however was problematic as a character and as a plot device. Brooks manages to make book conservation into an exciting job which isn't seen too often (and it is better treated than Indiana Jones treats archaeology) but beyond her fascination with her task, Hanna is unrealistic. The characters she interacts with are one dimensional and the dialogue hard to believe. Her relationship to her mother moves far away from dysfunctional and into the realm of ummm, no. She is not a likable character and perhaps if she didn't exotify mixed race people as really attractive mutts, I could have looked past that. Also, how can a barely 30 year old take time off from school yet gain 2 BAs, MA, PhD, involved apprenticeships, AND the kinds of jobs that will give her such a strong international reputation that lands her a job with sole responsibility for the Haggdah? Really now. And then it's SOOO easy to drop book conservation and pick up outdoor art conservation? A completely different field with different skill sets? And she's not the only one, she keeps meeting very important people who are the same age. Maybe I'm just jealous because that's pretty cool sounding but in real life, it takes much more time to gain that many degrees and chances are, people in positions of power, like head curators, tend to be more 40s-early 60s.

Yeah, so I really didn't like about half the book and really loved half the book. The parts with Hanna are interspersed with the historical parts but it's still easy to skip one half for the other.