Thursday, March 28, 2013

Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse-Frank Westerman

Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse:Man and Beast in an Age of Human Warfare -Frank Westerman

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 298
gender: M
nationality: Netherlands
year: 2010
Non-fiction, in translation

"Europe's twentieth-century history told through the incredible story of a horse: the Lippizaner. He explores the history of these unique creatures, an extraordinary troop of pedigree horses first bred as personal mounts for the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. Following the bloodlines of the studbook, he reconstructs the story of four generations of imperial steeds as they survive the fall of the Habsburg Empire, two world wars and the insane breeding experiments conducted under Hitler, Stalin and Ceausescu." 

At its core this is a book about genetic engineering, eugenics, and breeding programs. It is a brilliantly told story which makes it all the more impressive that it was not told in a chronological format. Instead this is a discovery type narrative. In a conversational tone Westerman draws parallels between our treatment of horses and our humanity. He doesn't shy away from the tough questions about those who place their purebred value above that of humans. He finds it difficult to assign heroes among the murk stories of stories and ask if we consider these horses to be victims then what does it say about us that their singular deaths affect us more than yet another mass grave of humans? The easy answer is statistics-the numbers hide the reality of deaths. When the numbers are lower, it's easier to sympathize and trace the realities.

So Westerman uses the horse as a vehicle to explore the turbulent and divisive legacy of genetics and the constant debate of nature versus nurture. There's no easy conclusions here which is precisely the lesson of history-there is no real ending and no clear victor/victim and instead everything is shades of grey. Propagating more questions and events and implication than it answers, this is how history ought to be explored. History is not a textbook and if there's no ambiguity then something's being done wrong.

And of course in the midst of all these murky histories full of communism, national socialism, and the various dictators rises the beautiful Lippizaner. If you're a horse fan, you'll love and understand Westerman's obvious fascination with them. They function as the main thread of this book and it's a beautifully strong central thread that gives a lot of white into the murky grey.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Moffie-André Carl van der Merwe

Moffie-André Carl van der Merwe

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 366
gender: M
nationality: South Africa
year: 2006
Novel

Nicholas van der Swart has always known he is different. Unable to live up to the expectations his family, his heritage and his culture have of him, he grows increasingly diffident and introverted. When, at the age of 19, he is conscripted into the South African army, he enters a world that is utterly at odds with his every sensibility. Here, he will face the scorn and violence of his tormenters, but will also find the strength to survive.

So, just from the description you know this is going to be a difficult book to read. Did that prevent it from ripping me apart emotionally? Nope. Did van der Merwe put me back together again? Sort of, but I lost some pieces along the way.

Another semi-autobiography of brutal war, the emotion behind van der Merwe's writing is palpable. The strength of the novel is not in the words or prose but what's behind it all. There's a certain tenderness to the writing that makes it all the more harrowing when that tenderness turns to the brutal sights of war. When we hear about South Africa's apartheid, we understandably hear the most about the black oppressed but every society has the oppressed. This is a book about a silent and oppressed minority forced to be the tool of the majority. It's a brutal and brutally honest portrait of being gay in a deeply conservative, intolerant culture and its army. While the bulk of the book takes place in the army, those sections are interspersed by flashbacks to civilian life. Those flashbacks paint a picture of not being much better than the army. That's saying a lot.

Throughout all the tragedy, the bodies, the threat of Ward 22 (a gay rehabilitation ward), and the army making every effort to make them into a homogenous mass of browns, there's a thread of strength. van der Merwe shows how true strength can only be gained from adversity. He demonstrates that despite every effort to beat out difference under the brown shirts were still individuals. There's a sense of grit that makes the latter part of the novel a story of strength as Nicholas grows into a pride in himself. There's just enough uplift at the end not to make this novel unremittingly bleak. A true monument to his fellow sufferers.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Empire of the Sun-J.G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun-J.G. Ballard

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 351
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1984
Novel

"Shanghai, 1941 -- a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki, as the bomb bellows the end of the war...and the dawn of a blighted world. Ballard's enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint."

I had read Drowned World after being recommended Ballard as an adult British dystopia writer and been like, "meh". When I mentioned it to this man in the pub, he immediately told me I'd done it all wrong. He then proceeded to pull Empire of the Sun out of his bag, his card, and told me to borrow his book.

How could I not read it after that? This is a book that gets lent out to a stranger because it's that good!

I swear it gave me nightmares (though I did read it on the heels of a different war book).

This book gives you just enough of a glimpse pre-war luxury for Jim before plunging you into the horrifying chaos of war-torn Shanghai. Surreal and harrowing is often the tone of the day here. There's no biases or commentary here just description. He loves airplanes and sees no future other than war so reasons that a pilot, a kamikaze pilot, might be a good career path. Indeed as a child of war, Jim adapts so thoroughly that he cannot imagine a life without concentration camps and disease. That's right, disease, death, selfishness, and brutality are normal for him. He prefers the camp to the forced labor that we hear about only because he's thinking about the bones of the dead Chinese laborers he worked alongside that got mixed into the asphalt to make the runway and how he doesn't want to go back to that. And the tone throughout is so matter of fact in this surreal way that just heightens, for me sitting in bed, the horrific reality of the war.

I'm sorry, was that paragraph jumbled? It's just that Ballard manages to make Jim both really world-weary and childlike in a stunted way at the same time. It's pitch-perfect really and so when Jim judges adults for not just dealing with the war happening you see his point but at the same time you see the doctor's point when he tries to teach Jim about a life with sanitation and wants more for Jim than just survival. When the Japanese are losing, Jim goes on a death march and that's when the novel truly becomes surreal and it's mostly because Jim's not sure he's alive. He's 14 years old and the war's been four years long and he lies in a stadium full of dead bodies overnight because he's not sure he's alive. And then suddenly the war's over and the world is fragile and the chaos continues and he's still so confused about everything.

"now that the search had ended he felt saddened by the memory of all he had been through, and of how much he had changed. He was closer now to the ruined battlefields and this fly-infested truck, to the nine sweet potatoes in the sack below the driver's seat, even in a sense to the detention center, than he would ever be again to his house in Amherst Avenue.”

Oh Ballard, you broke my heart. Since this is semi-autobiographical based on his own childhood experiences I can now understand why his view of humanity seems so bleak. I can't help but wonder how Ballard coped with that post-war shambles.
EDIT: Turns out there's a sequel. Gonna have to read that now.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Blog Lovin'

<a href="http://www.bloglovin.com/blog/6197173/?claim=cujvfq2eu2g">Follow my blog with Bloglovin</a>

The process of gaining control of your blog at blog lovin' requires this link. With the impending demise of google reader, it seems prudent to finally organize myself RSS-feed wise.

My posts will be appearing every Tuesday and every Thursday!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

My Soul to Take-Yrsa Sigurðóttir

My Soul to Take-Yrsa Sigurðóttir

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 456
gender: F
nationality: Iceland
year: 2006
Novel, in translation

"Thóra returns in her second case, this time representing a client convinced that a ghost is haunting his newly acquired property, a resort on the west coast of Iceland. Thóra heads out to the coast to consult, looking forward to a weekend without her children. Markedly more cozy and less macabre than the previous book, this one is also slower paced, both in the reading and the investigation. Thóra does not believe in the ghost, but when bodies start turning up around the resort, she decides to poke around."

I haven't read the previous Thóra novel but based on this one I want to. I liked Thóra-she's a divorced single mother who is slightly stressed and a small time lawyer whose nosiness I didn't grit my teeth at. That's rare. I don't understand, however, why the German Matthew doesn't have an active role in the investigation. As much as I enjoy the strong female sleuth, Matthew's job meant he should have been able to do more than just hang out in the backdrop. Minor nitpick though. I also loved that you got to know the victims just enough that when they died...well, you sort of cared.

The novel grips you in with a story of...no other word, horribleness but once we get into the contemporary part of the book the subject matter is treated with a lot more quirky humor. Sigurðóttir balances the dark crimes with the light humor with a deft hand. This book despite being a crime novel respects its environs. Iceland is not a passive backdrop but something that permeates the entire novel giving it a great sense of place. The plot is convoluted to say the least but Sigurðóttir doesn't lose her threads but rather steadily weaves them together in a way that actually keeps you guessing for awhile longer than you'd expect. I mean, that you are constantly second guessing even when it seems to be clear. The supernatural beliefs are never truly mocked or dismissed until the very end and are used to great effect to create the slightly creepy feeling of the haunted spa. The spa's atmosphere is further creepified (not a word but whatever) by the inclusion of history i.e. Nazism and tuberculosis. I mean, you always want the people in old pictures to not be evil but this novel doesn't shy away from proving that no life is harmless.

Fantastic crime novel.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Thursday Night Widows-Claudia Piñeiro

Thursday Night Widows-Claudia Piñeiro

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 274
gender: F
nationality: Argentina
year: 2005
Novel, in translation

"In an exclusive gated community 30 miles outside of Buenos Aires, Maria Virginia works as a real-estate agent after her husband loses his job. Readers gradually become acquainted with the rich families of the Heights through Maria, who is privy to their secrets, selling them their homes while living in the community herself. But she is always a bit of an outsider, one of the few women who work, and when the bodies of three of the most prominent men in the community are found dead in a neighbor’s backyard pool, she must decide where her loyalties lie, since her husband was visiting the three men shortly before their deaths. A fast-paced thriller, Piñeiro’s novel describes and critiques the lifestyles of Argentina’s nouveau riche, chronicling their rise into the exclusive world of the Heights and their downfalls as the economy sours after 9/11."

I skimmed a few reviews after I read this and many of them complained that as a mystery/thriller this book failed. I was expecting a “psychological portrait of a middle class living beyond its means” exactly as it says on the back and that's what I got. After the first chapter, even though you don't really know why these three men ended up dead at the bottom of pool, any idea that this is a typical mystery is pretty much thrown out the window as the chatty prose goes from the beginning of when Virginia/Mavi and Ronie move to The Cascades. This is not a crime novel per say, because it's never clear that a crime has occurred.

As a portrait of a luxurious upper middle class built on the shakiest foundations, this is brilliant. It's set in Argentina, and some of the problems are very Argentine but the majority is very universal. I say Argentine because it always seems like economic instabilities run through faster there; we have recessions, they have downfalls. But there is also the emphasis that as the upper middle class, it is expected to go to school in English, not Spanish. The thing about housing developments that impose stringent rules about conformity is that there will always be secrets. Putting so much pressure to conform to this idea of luxury will always cause fractures within the actual reality and the projected reality which is why residents at The Cascades so often reported losing all social ties to the outside world. This outside world also means nature such as when Virginia notes that it is a plus that maintenance removes all traces of storms from the properties so that “we may wonder if the gale really took place or belongs in a dream.” Maintaining the facade is easier within a community of people who are all maintaining a facade rather than also having to convince others who may be jealous or the like.

This anxiety flows through the entire novel. They are obsessed with security mainly because their own security is an illusion. For instance, Virginia notes that every single individual on the grounds are completely and thoroughly vetted with background checks and thus “no one is a stranger”. While you can argue that if no one is a stranger then you can trust everyone, I'd say that Piñeiro later makes a good point that this trust is that no one will actively violate your illusion rather than true trust by demonstrating how the disciplinary committee which takes the place of governmental law works. The Cascades is definitely not a trusting community and as such shows the typical fears of the poor (the nearby village of Santa María de los Tigrecitos where most of the workers live is only good for driving through), Jews (a big deal is made of exceptions), foreigners from other countries or dark-skinned people (one such servant is accused of encouraging a breakdown in one of their own), bats or weasels, and those who do not adhere to the gender expectations (like the youngest characters focused on in this book). This book is a thorough, almost dissecting, portrait of everything that a middle class wants, desires, and loses. Really not to be missed.g

I did have issues with what I presume must been a translation-calling the housing development a country club really jarred. At least in NJ, those kinds of developments are usually called luxury communities or simply gated communities. There was also a strange refusal to name the second (or third?) narrator. The main narrator was clearly Virginia but there were whole chapters written in the same prose style but clearly not by Virginia. I understand wanting to vary the viewpoint but why refuse to name your other narrators when you've so clearly invested in Virginia-as-narrator? Other Latin American authors use allegorical and magical realistic devices that would be out of place here but nevertheless echoes Piñeiro's change of narrators.

Read for the GWC challenge.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The End of Mr. Y-Scarlett Thomas

The End of Mr. Y-Scarlett Thomas

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 452
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2006
Novel

"A cursed book. A missing professor. Some nefarious men in gray suits. And a dreamworld called the Troposphere? Ariel Manto has a fascination with nineteenth-century scientists—especially Thomas Lumas and The End of Mr. Y, a book no one alive has read. When she mysteriously uncovers a copy at a used bookstore, Ariel is launched into an adventure of science and faith, consciousness and death, space and time, and everything in between. Seeking answers, Ariel follows in Mr. Y’s footsteps: She swallows a tincture, stares into a black dot, and is transported into the Troposphere—a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others. There she begins to understand all the mysteries surrounding the book, herself, and the universe. Or is it all just a hallucination?"
 
This is an attractive book. The dark red page edges, the fantastic cover design all conspired to help me to love it. This is a book that looks good on your shelf.

Inside though, it's a bit confused. There are so many threads to this story that its execution proves to be somewhat befuddling. I'm no stranger to fantastical stories with technology and ideas over my head but instead of handling it at a break-neck pace, Thomas seems to limp along and then rush to a new thread. I loved the premise, the idea behind it all, that you can actually walk through the connections in our heads to times in history. I loved the image of all our thoughts, our souls, manifesting as cities or villages. Human beings as dwellings. Lovely. But Thomas doesn't help you, the reader, understand why this is happening. Parts are treated rather scientifically (the process of walking into your city) but then motivations are given almost fantastical and fateful impetus. The characters were just so hard to get into-for a story that you could walk in other people's heads, the characters were astoundingly opaque, shallow, and unlikeable. Ariel, the main character is mainly just shock material for the sheer joy of shocking. And then the love story...I want to emphasize love storywhich was fairly pointless and unbelievable.

This is all my post-finishing impression though. While reading it, I was quite enjoying the whole thing, waiting for Ariel to discover things and fulfill the task of the rat god and all that. There is chock full of Einstein and Heidegger and quantum mechanics and other sorts of intensely cerebral distractions that I kind of just love even when they seem a bit name dropped (I don't need Baudrillard explained to me, but I like being reminded that he can be relevant to things that are not Baudrillard).

But...ok, I've a tendency to hate the last five minutes of certain movies (oh man, High Tension is #1 most despised ending) but I don't usually experience such vehemence towards endings in books. In fact, I think the last time I hated the last couple of pages of a book was that epilogue at the end of Harry Potter (seriously Rowling, what was that?! I'm still miffed). Until The End of Mr. Y. Fittingly I hated the end. Not of Mr. Y but of the book. What.a.cop.out. All those pages of development and waffling and no plot and then too much plot and then you throw this kind of ending at me?! How completely unsatisfying.
 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

War Dances-Alexie Sherman

War Dances-Alexie Sherman

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 357
gender: M
nationality: USA, Spokane
year: 2009
Short Story Collection

"Sherman Alexie delivers a virtuoso collection of tender, witty, and soulful stories that expertly capture modern relationships from the most diverse angles. War Dances brims with Alexie’s poetic and revolutionary prose, and reminds us once again why he ranks as one of our country’s finest writers. With bright insight into the minds of artists, entrepreneurs, fathers, husbands, and sons, Alexie populates his stories with average men on the brink of exceptional change: In the title story, a son recalls his father’s “natural Indian death” from alcohol and diabetes, just as he learns that he himself may have a brain tumor; “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless,” dissects a vintage clothing store owner’s failing marriage and courtship of a Puma-clad stranger in airports across the country; and “Breaking and Entering” recounts a film editor’s fateful confrontation with an thieving adolescent. Brazen and wise War Dances takes us to the heart of what it means to be human. The new beginnings, successes, mistakes, and regrets that make up our daily lives are laid bare in this wide-ranging new work that is quintessential"


I usually don't like to review short story collections. Too often there were stories I loved and stories I didn't really like and too little really binding it all together and too often I'm not even sure I could recommend it to others. War Dances is an exception.

A lovely collection full of nostalgia for mix tapes, reasonable references to Native American culture, interspersed with strong, tough poetry that makes me want to read more of his poetry. Always a good sign.

His characters are all in crisis but then they find a small symbol of some kind that lifts them out of this situation. The symbols give them strength. The bits and pieces of wit are awesome. One story has a boy's school that shares accommodation with a convent taking to shouting “get thee to a nunnery!” at each other. The wit breaks up the “tragedy of an alcoholic Indian father jukebox” style that so characterizes Alexie's writing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Good Earth-Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth-Pearl S. Buck

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 357
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1931
Novel

"The Good Earth is Buck’s classic story of Wang Lung, a Chinese peasant farmer, and his wife, O-lan, a former slave. With luck and hard work, the couple’s fortunes improve over the years: They are blessed with sons, and save steadily until one day they can afford to buy property in the House of Wang—the very house in which O-lan used to work. But success brings with it a new set of problems. Wang soon finds himself the target of jealousy, and as good harvests come and go, so does the social order. Will Wang’s family cherish the estate after he’s gone? And can his material success, the bedrock of his life, guarantee anything about his soul?"

What I loved most was, like Wang Lung, the land. Most of the time while reading this though I just kept getting irked and angry because all the slaves and the slave references were constantly a turn off. There was a stupid emphasis on beauty which made anyone female into an object which only served to make every character, except perhaps for O-Lan, despicable. And I found myself so angry O-Lan was such a weak character despite my best intentions. And every moment that a character had an idea of getting to know each other my hopes were raised and then dashed, like when Wang Lung had the passing idea of asking his new wife where she came from and he stops himself because it wasn't fair to demand her thoughts when she already belonged to him. There's a twisted logic to that, yes, but my teeth gritted. The emphasis on filial duty bothered me because it made everyone just plain selfish. If you are guaranteed filial duty, you need not to do anything to earn it. I guess I just found everyone so selfish just about all the time and there are few ways to annoy me more in a book. I get it that this is a book about a culture set far in the past and completely alien to my own but the obsession with appearance and what everyone thought of you was so overbearing especially since there was not a single character whose opinion I cared about.

And I'm no stranger to books about societies focused on appearance and conformity but I also got really annoyed by the style of writing. It was far too “translated” seeming for my taste. I honestly hoped I was reading a translation because that would justify the style but then I figured out that Pearl Buck is American, born in West Virginia. I'm afraid my patience ran so thin it's not even funny. I guess it shows a certain level of skill but it gave a note of falseness to the whole thing.

I just ranted a little here. I should mention that I loved the part where it was about what would an illiterate person make of religious pamphlets. This book functioned as a good parable about hierarchy and how quickly the rich can fall. I also loved how the land was treasured. There was no real joy or positivity except for the land though-everything else was just horrible.

“Yes but there was the land. Money and food are eaten, and gone, and if there is not sun and rain in proportion, there is again hunger...is there any way whereby the rich who oppress us can make it rain so that I can work on the land?”

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Un Lun Dun-China Miéville

Un Lun Dun-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 471
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2007
Novel, YA


"It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people, too–including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book. When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong."

Ok so Miéville is writing for a young audience so his bombardment of alternative technologies is kept on the down low but his sense of pace, adventure, and whimsy is out in full force. This makes his style a less pompous seeming and bit more down to earth and he focuses on the plot more than usual. The ending is also unusually equivocally happier than his usual.

This novel is full of the cute ideas that I fixate on in his other novels but here he develops them thoroughly. There are many to choose from: the animation of trash, umbrella unbrella rebrella, words with minds of their own, a diving suit made of sea life who need it to walk on land, black window black widows, a gun as a prison. This reminds me a bit of Garth Nix's Day of the Week series and some of Neil Gaiman's work so perhaps Un Lun Dun isn't quite as original as Mieville's other books but it's so accessible that it was easy to overlook that.

His main moral (this is YA, there's gotta be an overarching message) is that freedom is better and you can choose your destiny. There're also some somewhat heavy-handed environmental metaphors and puns that step in but his heroine is also suitably strong as she steps into shoes she never expected to. 

I know, I know, another Miéville?! I should just rename this blog thechinamievilleappreciationsociety.blogspot.com, eh?