Wednesday, April 6, 2016

I'm part of the one percent!

Okay--before you get your class hackles up, I am not (by any stretch of the imagination) a billionaire. This a different one percent. I received an email from Goodreads today, which tells me I am in the top one percent of reviewers there. This, I am absolutely certain, is a quantity rather than quality measurement, but we take what praise we can get, right? I was a bit surprised to be in this percentile, as it seems that a lot of people I am friends with over there have written a great deal more. But I assume they will all have gotten the same email. Or maybe even one that says they are in the top .5 percent or something.

Apparently, I've written 227 reviews there since I started blathering on there in August of 2008. Goodreads itself is heading toward it's fifty millionth review, so as you can see, my contribution is very small potatoes.

Goodreads also included the review I've written that has gotten the most interest. Was it for one of the many excellent mysteries I've read since signing up there? No. Was it for some lost classic that one of the several book groups I'm in have turned me on to? Nope, wrong again.

It's for Point Blank, book 2 of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider  series. Here is the review in its entirety.

I'm mildly addicted to Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series. Interesting, because they're basically spy novels, which are not really my thing, and geared toward middle school, which is, well, not my age group. And they aren't really aimed at my gender either. I just find them very fun.

My only quibble with this tale is that Horowitz descends to the all too common device of making a female villain also ludicrously ugly. It's apparently okay to incessantly mock someone's looks if they're also wicked, but unfortunately it has the effect of making moral failure and physical unattractiveness somehow equivalent. Too bad, because the appearance of this co-criminal is quite irrelevant to the story.

Fortunately, it's a minor aspect of this adventure tale of derring do.

I gave it three out of five stars.Not exactly a probing  literary essay, but I stand by it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, at Escape Into Life

I've got a post up at Escape Into Life today. It's about Elif Batuman, a Turkish-American writer who developed an unexpected passion for Russian language and literature. I wrote a bit about her reflections on this passion, but there is much more that I left out of her astute analysis of different Russian writers. The last chapter on the original The Possessed (i.e., Dostoevsky's) is particularly insightful and illustrates her idea of how books inform life and life informs our understanding of them. I've also found some cool links about Batuman's work elsewhere, which you should definitely check out, whether or not you bother to read my review.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Hanging Out With Pam and Em, part one

The reading gods strangely decreed that I should read two classics of Western literature one after the other. Although coming from different periods and written by authors of different countries, there are some interesting similarities about them. Both were written by men, featuring shall we say strong-willed female protagonists, and both broke new literary ground for the novel.

I read Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson because of a curious project a friend of mine has taken on. Because he feels that in his youth he avoided reading long books, in recent years he has tried to correct that, and occasionally succeeded in inveigling his friends into joining him in reading a series of what he calls "tomes". Different friends have responded to different lures, but through his offices I have finally tackled The Way We Live Now, Tristram Shandy, and, well, a fair amount of Humphrey Clinker. And now, Pamela. I thought I had attempted Pamela back in my college days, and was interested in completing the project. About halfway through, and somewhat to my dismay, I realized that it hadn't been Pamela at all, it had been Clarissa, Richardson's later and some say greater work. By that time, though, it was too late to back out.

Pamela, in case you have never heard of this 18th century bestseller, is a novel in letters showing the triumphant resistance (it's in the title folks, so that's no spoiler) of a very young servant girl to the unseemly advances of her late mistress's son, who has now become her master. At about the halfway point, though sensing what was coming, I was still hoping that our Pam would somehow find a musket and rid herself of her tiresome master and all his cohort, but sadly, this is not how it all works out. For me at least, Richardson manages to make the master so creepily loathsome that any redemption for him seems implausible, and unlike Mr. Darcy and all the other subsequent dark romantic heroes who finally become noble ones, Mr. B____ does not quite manage a personal transformation.

It is hard to read such a book absolutely straight, meaning as its original audience would have taken it. Pamela, in her triumph, took the world by storm. People not only read the book; there was merchandise.

As a form of the Cinderella story, and hence a prompt to upwardly mobile aspiration beyond its normal scope, it's no wonder that one Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wickedly called it "the  joy of the chambermaids of all nations."

According to the introduction to my old Signet edition by John M. Bullitt, Richardson was asked by two booksellers he knew to write a little book "for handsome girls who were obliged to go out to service ... how to avoid the snares that might be laid against their virtue." He happened to remember a true story which he had heard many years before, and so the character of Pamela sprang into life. It is safe to say that Pamela got away from him, as she does pretty much everyone in the book itself, by one means or another. Despite Richardson, she became psychologically real, a little like Pinocchio, or the Velveteen Rabbit. And the "little book" ended up being in excess of five hundred pages.

Pamela had a lot to get off her chest.

1750 portrati by Joseph Highmore

The letters and events are repetitious and go on too long. Dr.Johnson, according to Bullitt,wrote, "If you were to read Richardson for the story, your patience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself; but you must read him for the sentiment." My friend found one of the obstacles to be the way Richardson wrote dialogue in this book, which doesn't follow our modern conventions with quotation marks and distinct paragraphs, but I didn't find this a problem. I was actually rather fascinated by this alternate way that Richardson (or Pamela, since it's her letters we read)  rendered the way people speak to each other.

On the other hand, there is a tension and a nightmarish quality to the book that I found truly disturbing, while my friend found it all somewhat comical. Some of Mr. B___'s attempts on Pamela reminded him of some frat boys he had the opportunity to observe in action one summer as they schemed to assault some college girls' equivalent of virtue. Perhaps it's a difference between men and women, because Henry Fielding's short work Shamela takes Pamela to be too knowing by half. Although I don't mind the idea of parodying this work in theory, the first half of the book is about a guy holding a fifteen  year old girl completely in his power, and not really having to atone for it in the second, whatever Richardson himself may have thought about his redemption. And I found it worrying that throughout the book Pamela has absolute reliance on God to see her through. Worrying not for her, but for other girls in similar positions, who, equally virtuous, did not have such happy rewards, through no fault of their own.

My friend saw a sort of Gandhian figure in Pamela, which I found interesting. He mentioned someone saying that Gandhi couldn't have succeeded if he hadn't found in British values a line they wouldn't cross. Even Pamela's ability to faint at certain strategic moments reminded him of non-violent resistance. I'm not sure how well that strategy would have worked in real life for other Pamelas, though. As we know from the results of date rape drugs, men are not always put off by unconsciousness.

And I'm pretty sure that none of the administrators of the British Empire ever called Gandhi a "sauce-pot."

I'll take up the second book in part two.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

Today is the American launch of Rain Dogs, and if by some good fortune you happen to be in Manhattan this evening, you can actually go to a reading by the author at the Kinokuniya Bookstore. Details HERE.Yes, it's a little weird that a Northern Irish crime writer is doing a reading at a Japanese bookstore, but weird in a cool way. 

I say American launch because the British version of Rain Dogs actually came out a couple of months ago, and like so many of his fans, I couldn't be bothered to wait for the U.S. edition, so read it awhile ago. I don't see any huge harm in starting with this book, but the fact is that this is a series, and if possible, you should start with The Cold, Cold Ground and work your way forward. Although the books are dense with all sorts of allusions, half of which go right over my head, they are actually very fast reads, so it won't take you long. 

The series follows the adventures of Sean Duffy, Catholic police detective on a largely Protestant Northern Irish police force, through the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Rain Dogs brings us up to 1987. I'll save talking about the opening till last, but Duffy's personal life is yet again on the downspin, as Beth, the girl who's recently moved in with him, is very decisively moving out. Duffy, who can be morose at the best of times, isn't taking this too well. Although I won't say that he doesn't have time to worry about that, because, being Duffy, he manages to find some, most of it is quickly taken up with two cases--an irritating theft in a local hotel, which unfortunately involves some badly needed international investors, and a much more consequential death at Carrickfergus Castle (which may be more familiar to you in its alternate incarnation in the television production of The Game of Thrones). And it isn't long before the maddening possibility emerges that this may be a locked room mystery murder.

Maddening, because Duffy has already solved another locked room mystery during a previous case in In the Morning I'll Be Gone. And what are the odds that he'd run across another in his lifetime? Luckily for him, his junior partner, Alex Lawson (who McKinty completists will already know from the standalone Hidden River) has the math on that.

I happen to have read the opening of this book several times, because McKinty put up the beginning chapter and then chapters on his blog, and of course, I then started over when I read the book. In it Duffy once again manages to find himself in the presence of a celebrity of that time. In an alternate universe, it might actually have happened...

Here is McKinty reading that opening scene from the first chapter:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Way We Live Now, again

Far be it from me to turn this book review blog into a political commentary, but after just watching a segment on Lawrence O'Donnell on a shady Trump deal in Mexico, I just have to say that a Donald Trump was foreseen by Anthony Trollope in The Way We Live Now when he created the character Melmotte, who enters the political realm in England from a vague but somehow glamorous business past. Everyone is enamored with his wealth, but  he eventually learns that politics may be a step too far. He even has a shady railroad deal out in the American West, which proves to be more than questionable.

Read your classics, people. It could serve you in good stead in areas you least expect it...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

I first made the acquaintance of Tom Crowley as a mystery writer, not a memoirist. He was attending the 2014 Bouchercon in Long Beach and we started up a conversation on that first evening, which ultimately led to my reading the first of his Matt Chance mystery novels, Viper's Tail, which I reviewed here at Not New For Long a while ago. One of the things that I found interesting about that book was how Matt's former life as a soldier came through and affected his choices in the present.

So it was with great interest that I read Crowley's account of his own experience as a 'grunt' in Vietnam. In his forward, Crowley writes about the niche he is trying to fill with this account. He says that there are autobiographies by authentic war heroes,  and there are books by war correspondents, often excellent, but not really reflecting the day to day life of the soldier on the ground. Crowley wanted to speak for the many combat veterans who for the most part haven't really spoken out about their experiences. As Crowley himself found, it is no easy thing to do to revisit traumatic memories long enough to write about them.

Crowley came into the war before our national disillusionment about it had set in, so despite being pressured into service by the looming specter of the draft, he was able to enlist on his own terms. As someone who came of age in the years of protest, it was interesting to me to read of how army life was experienced before the corrosion of trust had set in. Crowley shows  himself to be molded in a particular American grain by resolving early on to do his best, to make the most of it, and even the grueling boot camp days and officer's training he seems to have taken more as a challenge and actually enjoyed. And once given a platoon on the ground in Vietnam, he takes his responsibilities seriously.

Although Crowley claims to be no hero, he does prove himself to be a leader of men, and is conscientious and resourceful in the way he treats the soldiers under him. One short maxim which was passed on to him by a more seasoned soldier as he was about to take up his command was one that I have actually tried to integrate into my own life a little more since reading this book, though admittedly in situations where the stakes aren't anywhere as high. "If you think it, do it." The idea here was that even if you and your troops are bone tired from marching down some trail all day, trying to stay alert for ambushes, if you think to set up a perimeter that can be guarded, you should do even if every bone in your body just wants to rest.

Countering this American resoluteness and ingenuity, though, is a growing sense of how the war is really being played and by whom, and the career military takes some heavy criticism as the book progresses. Decisions are made by higher ups for political reasons that have nothing to do with the troops on the ground but only the generals' long term career aims. Although, Crowley is restrained in his expression of this, it does come through all the same.

I am not normally a student of the history of the Vietnam war, knowing just famous names and battles, the tunnels of Cuchi and other things that are part of our vague cultural associations with the place. So one thing that surprised me was to learn that for the most part, the Vietnam was fought by soldiers who were only there on a one year tour of duty (long enough, obviously, if you were one of the soldiers.) But this set up a dynamic where the North Vietnamese were steadily watching and learning about their opponents, while the Americans were inevitably always learning everything all over again. Although perhaps this doesn't mean the American mission was doomed from the start, it's certainly one scenario that can't help crossing one's mind.

This is a fast, absorbing read even if you aren't a vet or someone passionate about reading war history. It succeeds in interesting us in the life of one foot soldier who perhaps isn't as ordinary as he claims to have been, but nevertheless experienced what many, many young men did in that war and helps us to understand it better. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

I was intrigued with the premise of this book after reading about it recently on Rob Kitchin's blog, The View from the Blue House. Rob writes admirably concise, fair and nonspoilerish reviews of crime fiction and you should check out his blog if you need some recs, as he covers a wide swath of territory.

"Slow horses" is what the book's  elite spy world calls fellow spies who have been put out to pasture but refuse to quite die. Usually their banishment is due to some screw-up that can't be swept under the carpet. The case of River Cartwright, who leads us into this world, is given as an opening example. Then we're introduced to Slough House, the refuge for these ne'er-do-wells, and the punning source of the failed spies' nickname. Let's  just say the place has no resemblance to MI-5 headquarters and that's putting it mildly.

I like Herron's description of the particular hell that these people, once members of the best and the brightest, find themselves in. Their actual jobs are no more boring than a lot of people's work is, but it's the haunting sense of what could have been but for one slip, one lapse, one indiscretion that makes this a purgatory for them. As in Dante's description of hell, there is no camaraderie, as everyone is both too preoccupied with themselves and too aware of their neighbors' failures to reach out to each other. However, a kidnapping is about to change all that.

The subsequent story is nice and twisty, and although some of the twists can be foreseen once you get the way Herron's plotting works, I still found a few clever surprises. And the author is successful in keeping a large cast of characters distinguishable from each other and giving them all their own story arc and the story unfolds nicely.

As I may have mentioned a time or two before, I do love me a good London novel, and as Slow Horses takes place almost entirely within its environs, it fit the bill for me on that level too.

Slow Horses is the first of a series and I happen to have a galley of the second, Dead Lions, which I'd picked up just because of the Soho imprint.

Lucky me.