Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I know I'm late to jump on the YOU MUST READ THIS NOW bandwagon for this book, but... seriously, YOU MUST READ THIS NOW. This was a bestseller for a reason, and anyone who doesn't read it is doing themselves a great disservice. For the most part, I agree with the previous Book Book review here (I think I cried my way through the whole second half), so all I can do is say YOU MUST READ THIS NOW.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

It's classics time! I love old books--particularly now that I've got my Kindle and can download them free or for $1 apiece. I can't believe I'd never gotten round to reading The Man Who Was Thursday before, as it's very well known. So we can call this a Fill In The Gaps book, huh?

When The Man Who Was Thursday was first published, in 1907, the big terrorist threat came from anarchists, who threw bombs and assassinated people for a variety of complicated reasons. They turn up quite regularly in the literature of the time, quite often as vague caricatures representing some kind of destructive force or forces of evil. This is the case in The Man Who Was Thursday, where Chesterton uses the anarchists to represent all that is negative in the world, and doesn't tie them in to any particular political movement.

The book's an allegory, so no character can be taken at its face value--and to complicate matters, within the novel every character is revealed to be quite different from what he seems. (This is almost exclusively a male tale, born of a society where the men of the English ruling class were expected to move in men-only circles from an early age, through boarding school to clubs to Parliament.)

The plot is relatively straightforward: the poet Sykes infiltrates a group of anarchists nicknamed according to the days of the week (Sykes is Thursday). He is co-opted into the anti-anarchist police by a mysterious personage whom he meets in a completely dark room. The anarchists are led by a larger-than-life, terrifying character called Sunday.

The book has a repeating pattern of wild chases and moments of revelation that build on one another to become funnier as the plot thickens. For this is a comedy, although a subtle and disturbing one. I'd hate to spoil the book for you by explaining exactly what's going on, but I can say that terror alternates with relief and a sense of the ridiculous. The climax of the book is quite thrilling and profound. The novel's subtitle, A Nightmare, may give you a hint about the plot's strange shifts and reverses.

If you ever liked the Narnia books, you'll like Thursday, which in some ways is the adult counterpart to C.S. Lewis's books. One day I will go through my bookshelves and make a special section for books that deserve to be re-read at intervals during my life; this book will make the cut.

There are many different editions of Thursday: the one I read (which is not the one linked to on Amazon, but the one in the picture) was published by Ignatius Press, edited by Martin Gardner. I did not particularly like the edition, which was idiosyncratic and self-serving. There must be a better one out there.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge by Patricia Duncker

A collective suicide--or is it murder?--points to a strange sect, and the investigating judge sets out to find answers.

I never got entirely comfortable with The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge. I enjoyed the European settings (although occasionally there seemed to be too much of an effort to add local color) and the Dan Brown-like "mysterious sect" touches were interesting, but I was still unable to really get into the book's world.

I think this was for two reasons. The first was the timeline, which moved forwards rather jerkily. The novel starts with a murder scene that sets the action, then there's a backstory dump about two of the characters, then the main story jumps forward three months and there's a bit of backfilling about what happened in between. The jumps forward repeat themselves two or three times.

The second reason was the characters - I just couldn't get into them. The passion of the two men for the Judge just didn't seem convincing to me, and the Judge herself came across as a cold character, even when we were seeing her point of view. As for the Goth Greffière, what the heck? Maybe it's seeing her through American eyes (I'm British-born but I've been here a few years) but the Goth thing seemed like arrested development to me. In fact she came over as very childish altogether.

The whole thing was quite well written and it did have its points, but I just couldn't get excited about this book. I'm going for an "ambivalent" rating because it's one of those instances where I want to give the author another chance and might read her next offering.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Brubury Tales by Frank Mundo

NB I received a copy from the author for review.

The Brubury Tales is an homage to literature set in the form of a "big poem", in Frank Mundo's words. It follows the shape and form of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, updated to Los Angeles in the 1990s. A group of security guards working the night shift engage in story-telling to win a paid vacation, basing their stories on classic tales from literary history. Some of the tales I recognized, some were new to me.

I have to applaud this attempt to recreate Chaucer in modern America. Mundo has an earthy style that lends itself quite well to the bard's frankness in sexual matters and detailed depictions of the common man. Like Chaucer, Mundo mixes in a a poetic style (Chaucer took his from the French poems common in the Middle Ages) and this is where I think the book was less successful. I have to admit to skimming through the Brubury Tales version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but then I always found that poem hard going and repetitive.

The other thing I noticed was that the poem could have used some editing to cull out a few mistakes and obscure turns of phrase. But, sigh, I notice that kind of thing a lot.

In the end, what stood out from this work was the deep understanding of the ordinary guy in the street, and the ability to get literary concepts across in that language. If Mundo can focus his talents in that direction, I think the result could be some very interesting novels. I'll be watching.

Blessings by Anna Quindlen

Blessings was a selection for my daughter's book club. Let me say straight off that I loved it!

A baby is left by the garage of the local "big house" by a couple of teenagers, and found by the handyman who lives over the garage. A strange complicity develops between him and the house's owner, and two people from opposite sides of the social divide enter into a friendship that reconciles their own pasts.

So now I'm going to talk about the rules it breaks. You get a lot of talk on writer blogs about never starting your novel with a backstory dump: Blessings sets up the action and then gives you 70 pages of backstory before the story moves forward. You're told to use short, punchy sentences. Blessings is strewn with long and sometimes somewhat clunky sentences.

So why does it work so well? The answer has to be that the writing is beautiful, the characters are immaculately drawn and very convincing, and the setting gets just enough--but not too much--attention. It struck me that the main story is in fact quite slight, and that without the backstory setup I'd probably be thinking "so what?" as it gets going. But by the time the action gets going, I was so thoroughly invested in the lives of the characters that I devoured the rest of the book.

This is a story to study for its structure. There's something very sure about Quindlen's touch; in a very short read (just over 200 pages) she packs in a lot of literary wallop.

Draw the Dark by Ilsa J. Bick

Christian is a talented artist with some dark shadows in his past. His ability to "draw out" memories from other people onto paper has set him apart as a loner and a freak at school. When the process gets out of his control and he begins slipping into memories from the history of his small Wisconsin town, he has to turn away from his preoccupation with his own past in order to solve a 60-year-old mystery.

Draw the Dark (publication date October 2010) is a great YA read: dark, with a strong historical background and fast-paced, compelling writing. I found it hard to tear myself away from the last 100 pages. This is a novel that will appeal to adults and older teenagers. I loved the historical detail, and the "memory" story rang very true. The paranormal touches appealed to me less, but then I'm not a fan of paranormal. Still, they never strayed into what I'd call "silly" territory; they were very lightly applied and never got out of hand. I really enjoyed this novel.

Note: I downloaded the galley of this book from NetGalley.


[Department of Funny Coincidences: I just saw that Book Book reviewer Stacy posted her review of this yesterday. On top of which, it was first reviewed here last August, by one "Ha.fuu.sa." Wonder what the record for most-reviewed book is here? Anyway, here goes...]

The career of Mikael Blomkvist, a well-respected investigative journalist, comes to grief on a hot and utterly plausible story which, alas, is not quite true. Worse: that story presumes to expose a powerful industrialist with a taste for revenge...

Across town, a young woman named Lisbeth Salander works out a life of personal demons, with the help of a spiny attitude, a photographic memory, and some righteous computer skills...

Three hours away by train, one Henrik Vanger -- elderly but still sharp, and still at the apex of a sprawling family business -- frets that he will go to his grave without knowing the truth of a family mystery which has obsessed him for forty years...

Any of these three characters and his or her situation might fuel a thriller in a classic vein.

Bring two of them together, and your readers might wonder if you're trying too hard.

Combine all three into a single tale, and you may be charged with (at best) possession of a lazy, disorderly mind.

Now go even further: combine all three, give them no superpowers, and put them not in exotic, jet-set locales but in Sweden for a dark, wintry year. Take your good old time wandering through several opening chapters almost exclusively expository in nature. And finally, in the rest of the book, alternate long passages describing arcane matters like stock-market manipulations with brief scenes of explosive, almost excruciatingly creepy violence.

Do all that, it seems, and you'll count yourself lucky to find a publisher, let alone readers.

But Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo didn't become an international bestseller by accident. That its author died shortly after delivering its manuscript to his publisher (along with those of two sequels) may be a perverse little twist of fate. But that curious bit of trivia is certainly not enough to sell the book. The real reason that Dragoon Tattoo succeeds -- has struck a sympathetic chord in so many readers -- may be that it's just a good book.

Larsson's prose, translated to English by "Reg Keeland" (a pseudonym for Steven T. Murray), does not dazzle. If it did, I think, it would be easy to dismiss as unnecessarily fancy. Aside from action scenes and dialogue, the central "topics" of the book are, after all, quite complex: the ups and downs of managing a magazine as a business; international industry and banking; computer and network hacking; and twisted family relationships (enough to require a family tree), going back generations. Much stylistic foofaraw would simply make them harder to follow. The action scenes themselves, on the other hand, can be quite brutal: dress them up in rhetorical flourishes and you run the risk of glamorizing the violence. Under all these circumstances, in short, I don't think I'd want the prose to be anything but workmanlike, serviceable, transparent.

I may have been among a minority of Dragoon Tattoo's readers, in coming to it relatively unspoiled by outside opinion. In the entire five years since the book's original publication in Sweden, let alone the last two in the US, I'd not read any reviews of it, nor discussed it with anyone else who'd read it. I picked up my own copy because I was simply curious: that ornate, fluorescent-yellow-green cover seemed to be everywhere. (And what a cool title, too.)

Now, having finished it, I still think it's an unlikely success story. I haven't counted pages, but I'd guess that the expository passages outnumber the action ones not just in quantity but in sheer volume. When those islands of action did come into the foreground, I think the satisfaction I felt came not just from seeing complex evil characters get their comeuppance and complex good ones triumph, but from simple relief.

But again, the book flies in the face of expectations. To say it "breaks all the rules" would give it too much credit; this isn't Ulysses, after all, and I doubt that Larsson -- himself a journalist -- ever imagined it as art. Yet somehow, reading each page required me to read the next, which required me to read the next...

...and 500 pages later, I'm just looking forward to those two sequels.

[Reviewer's note: sorry for not really covering the book's plot. This is an offbeat thriller, and (for me, anyhow) the surprises in those moments of action constituted genuine pleasure. If you want to know more about what actually happens, Lord knows there are plenty of other reviews out there. Or, uh, here. Ha.]

Friday, August 13, 2010


Warning: Contains spoilers.

Here's the Big Debate about this novel: Is it misogynistic in its depiction of violence against women or is its depiction of violence against women an indictment of misogyny?

People can debate all they want about the violent scenes, but all I can say is: These people sure drank a lot of coffee. It seemed like every page someone was making coffee, or drinking coffee, or asking someone if they wanted coffee. It left me wondering if Sweden is the only country in Europe that drinks coffee instead of tea. Do these people pour it on their breakfast cereal? I'll never know if Larsson was a misogynist, but I'll bet my bottom dollar he had a caffeine addiction.

But if you're in the camp that he was making an indictment of misogyny, you could argue it comes in the form of Lisbeth Salandar, a scrawny, twenty-four year-old ward of the Swedish court. She's misread by everyone around her as completely socially inept and quite possibly mentally challenged; consequently she misreads herself as a freak. (She's not.)

At first glance she seems harmless. She's young, she's tiny, she seems defenseless. But she's a gifted hacker and even better researcher. She's not one to forgive and she sure as hell isn't one to forget. Cross her and she will extract revenge in imaginative ways, as her second guardian (who brutally rapes her) finds out.

One day she is hired to investigate Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist recently convicted for libel. He in turn has been hired to investigate the disappearance of a rich debutante. Eventually Blomkvist figures out Salandar hacked him, and instead of being pissed, he hires her to handle aspects of the investigation he dare not go as a journalist.

During the course of the novel, they become lovers, but there's also the fine, fragile bloom of a friendship underneath. During the obligatory “savior” scene, Larsson breaks at least a little new ground in making Salandar the unabashed hero, saving Blomkvist from the killer. Seriously, when's the last time you read a novel where the guy is playing the girl's part? This leads me to believe that Larsson was, in a popular-novel-entertaining way, making an indictment against misogyny. Or maybe he was just trying to give the ol' mystery novel a good twist.

Whichever it was, I'll bet you anything that when he sat down to write, he held a cup of coffee.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sebastian Junger/WAR

Like (probably) most Americans, I have never fought in a war, and am unlikely ever to do so. Like (probably) most Americans, I nonetheless hold plenty of opinions about war in general as well as about specific conflicts. Those opinions are important to us, and we regard holding onto them in the face of opposing views as a matter of psychological -- almost theological -- life and death.

But civilian opinions one way or the other about war, any war, shred like tissue paper when you try to wrap them around the hard, spiky reality of soldiers' experiences. It simply doesn't matter what John Q. Public (let alone his favorite talk-show host) thinks.

Enter Sebastian Junger's newest foray into the human response to extreme stress, called simply War.

It follows, roughly in chronological order, the year which Junger spent embedded with the men of Battle Company of the US Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, in the Korengal Valley along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border between 2007 and 2008. Much of the book is written in the present tense, which both fuels the intensity of action scenes and suggests, rightly, that this is not about stuff which happened: it's about stuff which happens, and will probably keep on happening long after anyone remembers why we were in Afghanistan in the first place.

How active was Battle Company in the conduct of the war? Early in the book, Junger presents us with a couple of statistics:
Nearly a fifth of the combat experienced by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan is being fought by the 150 men of Battle Company. Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are dropped in and around the Korengal Valley.
That announces right up front: this will probably not be a book in which to find a lot of material about the beauty of the landscape, the simple lives of the mountainside shepherds and farmers, the tragedy of native lives being torn apart by war. Politics and religion play no direct part in the lives of soldiers serving a tour of duty in such circumstances. (They do, of course, play an enormous indirect role.)

For as Junger himself carefully points out, battle is not war. Someone debating the pros and cons of war and peace is probably not waiting for the shriek of a rocket or the thwap! of a bullet into a nearby sandbag.

(Junger dwells quite a bit on the sounds of battle, probably because the soldiers do, probably because although you can shut your eyes and imagine it gone, you can't kid your ears. To know the nuances which distinguish a monkey's cry from a rocket, or the barking of a dog alerting you vs. that of a dog alerting your enemy -- to recognize such nuances is to stay alive a few moments longer.)

Like professional sports, a great deal of a soldier's life consists of just sitting around waiting for life to happen. And Junger pays a lot of attention to these idle moments, as well. In the quiet, "off-duty" moments he locates the reasons why groups of soldiers succeed or fail. Consider the titles of the three sections into which he's organized the book: Fear. Killing. Love. The second may be (not surprisingly) the central one -- the one which distinguishes a book about soldiers from one about (say) firefighters or police. But it's bracketed by sections all about men's looking inward to themselves and outward to their daily life -- outward toward others.

By far, most of War pertains to events, and what men say (or shout) about them at the time and afterward. You will read about moments in which bullets and mortar shells, rockets and shrapnel transform men who are whole into men who are not. Junger does not stint on his coverage of the sheer rushing-blood excitement of combat. (He insists, I think rightly, that anyone considering a long-term "cure" for war will need to take into account this excitement, and the easy addiction to it.) You will also find moments of surprising comedy, of strong, cynical men breaking down and weeping into their hands.

But one passage which I found particularly telling was a more theoretical one in that last section, about the value of altruism -- the "I'd throw myself on a grenade for my buddies" syndrome. After all, suicide for the sake of others makes no evolutionary sense: it's saying, My own gene pool doesn't matter as much as everyone else's. "Researchers," Junger notes, "have never once observed a chimpanzee turn around to help another male who is getting beaten to death by outsiders."

So why will soldiers do it? Even if they never have an opportunity, why do they all seem, almost universally, to accept they they would?

To answer this, Junger cites research into ancient cultures (which organized themselves -- coincidentally or not -- into roughly the same size groups as platoons and companies):
Humans lived in groups... who were loosely related to one another. They married into other groups that spoke the same language and shared the same territory... Because of our violent past, evolution may have programmed us to think we're related to everyone in our immediate group -- even in a platoon -- and that dying in its defense is a good genetic strategy... Groups that weren't organized like that may have had a hard time competing with groups that were, so in that way a propensity for bravery and self-sacrifice could have spread through human culture.
I found this convincing and compelling. I also found in it a lesson for the culture at large -- a suggestion that maybe these values might be important elsewhere than on a battlefield. But maybe that's just me, from the comfort of my desk chair.