Friday, September 28, 2012

Breathing Water, by Timothy Hallinan

Though it's been many years now, I've been to Bangkok. My sister was interested in Southeast Asian dance, and as I was free (ie, unemployed) and had a little cash, I went along. We traveled around Southeast Asia for about six weeks, but Bangkok was the first place we landed, and the place we came back to midway. I took to it right away, in all its golden gaudiness, and perhaps, given the right circumstances, might have stayed there longer.

Nevertheless, there were aspects of the city even then that I knew we, as young American women, were not participating in, and that we were skating right over the surface of an old and complicated culture and also the more recent American involvement there. I found a confirmation of this in Hallinan's description of the relation of the farang, or foreigners to Bangkok:

Most farang pass through the  gravitational Gordian knot of Bangkok unscathed, like long-haul comets for whom our solar system is just something else to shoulder their way past. Farang have no formal status here.  They come and go. They dimple the surface of the city's spacetime like water-striding insects, staying for a few months at a stretch and then flitting elsewhere. They don't have enough mass to draw the gaze of the individuals around whom the orbits wheel.

But Rafferty is being gazed at. And he knows all the way to the pit of his stomach that this is the worst thing thing that can happen to him.

Poke Rafferty is a journalist, living in Bangkok with his Thai wife and daughter. Breathing Water is several books into the series, and so possibly not the best place to start, but I have to say that I didn't find my comprehension suffering by coming late to the story, and Hallinan is good at communicating enough of what's gone before to fill in the blanks. The story opens with a high stakes poker game, which leads Rafferty into a curious bargain. He's to use his journalistic skills to tell the story of a Bangkok big wig, and immediately finds himself pincered between those who want the story told and those who want the story never, ever to get out. Trying to figure out who wants what is only part of Rafferty's problem.

The secondary story is that of a young girl who when given the choice, opts to be a beggar on Bangkok's hot streets rather than become a prostitute. Eventually, of course, her story and Rafferty's come together.

Hallinan treats dark subjects with a humorous touch, which serves his purposes better than a more downbeat voice. For the typical uninformed Westerner (such as myself) he is very good at elucidating the Thai power structure, in which ethnically Chinese Thais inhabit the rarified upper echelons, and the  native Thai Isaan from the northeastern part of the country are typically among the impoverished lower classes. Oh, yeah--skin color matters.

This is an entertaining suspenseful tale, but you will absorb quite a bit about the Thai culture without even really trying. I even learned a bit more about the previously incomprehensible riots in Bangkok a few years back, in which the red shirts and the yellow shirts were duking it out. Turns out it wasn't about the shirt color. It was about power--who had it, and who was going to have it in the fuure.

I think that after reading this book, you'll at least know a little bit more about who you'd like to win...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

NYRB podcast from The Mookse and the Gripes

As the occcasional reader here will have figured out, a fair percentage of the books I read these days are from the New York Review of Books imprint. This is partly because I'm the NYRB book group on Goodreads (an open group--join in!), and partly because I think it's one of the most intriguing imprints going these days.

Now Trevor and Brian Berrett over on The Mookse and the Gripes website are adding a whole new dimension to the discussion by doing a monthly podcast about some NYRB favorite. The first one is on Butcher's Crossing, by John Williams. I haven't read this one yet, but apparently it's a 'western' in the same way Cormac McCarthy's books sometimes are. Check it out HERE, or on ITunes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wee Rockets, by Gerard Brennan

I've been a bit remiss about getting around to reading Wee Rockets, mainly because it just takes me longer to get around to ebooks than their paper counterparts. What can I say? I'm old school. Also, I work in a bookstore.  But as I've very much enjoyed Mr. Brennans' work in the past, I have persisted and think it's high time I wrote a few thoughts on the matter.

When I first heard about Wee Rockets, which I learned would be about a bunch of young kids in hoodies in Belfast, I must say that I didn't know they would be such tough characters. I was maybe thinking more along the lines of the Artful Dodger and other beloved street urchins.

But these are not those kids. When we come into the story, Joe Phillips' crew is just setting out to mug an old lady, and this is not their first crime, even though, as the story tells us, none of them is over fourteen years old. (And some are a lot younger.) And the community has begun to notice.

For this reason, and not because of any crisis of conscience, Joe, who is the tallest of the bunch and therefore the most conspicuous, is looking to leave the gang behind him. But not before Stephen McVeigh, after trying to rally the Beechmount community behind him, decides to go after the gang as a kind of lone vigilante. In essence, these two fateful decisions propel the book. Well, that and the surprise visit of a long lost relative.

Never having been a pre-teen boy (and they are all boys, there is nary a girl in sight, though Joe seems to have a healthy enough interest in grown women), you might think that this violent and sometimes brutal tale about boys stealing to gain access to cheap cigarettes,booze and weed would hold little interest for me. But it's perhaps exactly the inside view that makes it so interesting. How many books have you read about what it's like to grow up in a working class Catholic neighborhood just as the Troubles are starting to recede? Yeah--same here.

Brennan has many strengths that makes this not just another crime story. He has a great gift for structuring a story, for one thing. There are a lot of characters in this short book, and a lot of plots to keep whirling in the air, but he manages this in a very understated sort of way. You don't really realize how difficult it is until you stop to think about it. The book has humor despite its darkness, and I must say that though I'm sure the author drew on some autobiographical details to write his characters, I have to hope that his obvious talent for thinking up criminal activity all went on to the page and wasn't tested in the real world at an earlier time...   

There are elements of the story that could be told here in Santa Cruz, which though affluent and mostly calm, does have its gang problems. But as I've stepped back from the story a little, I think there is a lot about its particular milieu that leaves these kids with too much time on their hands. It's not just absent fathers and working moms that are the problem. This story is set in the aftermath of a war, and the power vacuum that came in the wake of that is evident. Who does have authority? is one of the questions the book asks. The fact that young kids can rush around mugging people with impunity means that the social fabric is pretty tattered.

There is a telling sentence fairly far into the book. It's almost a throwaway. Joe is sitting in a car parked near Queens' University, though he doesn't know precisely where. "He'd never been in this part of the city. Hadn't thought he ever would."

Hadn't thought he ever would. It was fairly stunning to me to read that, but it made the over the top behavior of the kids seem more credible to me. It isn't just that these young Beechmont hoodlums don't expect to go to college. They don't even expect to visit its vicinity. It's not just transportation that's stopping them. It's that as much as they identify with their Beechmount neighborhood, they are also limited by it.

In one scene far into the book, one character takes another out to dinner. When the woman starts yelling at her date, he tells her that her Beechmount is showing. "This is a classy place, you know."

The woman has the pride to walk out on him, but, tellingly she doesn't have quite enough self-confidence to stare the other diners down and have her meal anyway.

Now frankly, most of this book's target readers aren't going to be reading it for these sorts of sociological reflections. They're going to be reading it for the fast paced, gritty and sometimes shocking little tale that it is . And I say, have at it!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

There's Just Something About Amara Lakhous--Divorce, Islamic Style

I read a lot of different kinds of books and I like a lot of authors, but for me the dead giveaway that someone has got my number is when I gasp as I come across a new work by them.

Such is the case with Amara Lakhous, the Algerian-born Italian who has written the work under discussion here. I first learned of Lakhous thanks to an Italian blog friend and for this, will be forever indebted to him.  Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio used the mystery format to introduce us to a highly diverse immigrant community on one Italian piazza. (I wrote about that book here if you're interested.)

So it should come as no surprise to us that Lakhous uses yet another time-honored genre, the spy novel, to form the basis of this one. I think, though, that there has probably never been a spy novel quite like this one.     

Christian, an Arabic speaking Sicilian, is approached to infiltrate a largely Arabic neighborhood called Viale Marconi. He takes on the Arabic name of Issa, which means Jesus. Meanwhile, Safia is a recent immigrant with aspirations of her own, and adopts the more Italian sounding name of Sofia. Everyone in the book has a double identity, which is not only a sly nod to the spy world and its cover identities, but also to the double nature of the immigrant/exile experience.

I've had a lot of interest in spy fiction for the last couple of years, partly because I have a very undeveloped manuscript in the genre which I'm constantly trying to figure out how to make better. But perhaps even more to the point here, it's opened me to a lot of thinking about the morality of espionage, its necessity, and so on. A lot of commercial spy fiction gives only a passing nod to the harm it causes, and I always like reading work that treats the effects on the lives that get caught up in it seriously.

One of the wonderful things about Lakhous is the way he is able to tackle serious questions in a disarming and even light-hearted way. An early example is when Issa is at a training retreat and says:

The absolutely first lesson was to use the English word "intelligence" rather than "espionage". Words are important.

I couldn't help thinking of this when a few days later I was reading the opinions of a former CIA operative, stressing the importance of intelligence. Like all euphemisms, it hides an uglier truth, which Lakhous knows and has Issa tell us as he weighs the pros and cons:

Spying is despicable work. You've got to meet a lot of requirements if you're going to be successful: don't look people in the face and have betrayal in your heart--as the Neopolitians would say. But I'm no fool, I can't pretend not to notice: Islamic terrorists do exist, they're not an invention of the media.

This deceptively simple speech is the whole situation--for the West, for democracy and for conscience. And Divorce, Islamic Style is laden with such contradictions and internal struggles.

To his very great credit, Lakhous does not set this up as a "The West against Islam" novel. For his other protagonist, Safia/Sofia is an Egyptian immigrant, an observant Muslim and a wife of an even stricter one. She struggles within herself to be a true follower of Islam, while craving some of the freedoms that the West has to offer her. But Islam itself is also about freedom and her internal conversation is about how stay faithful to this greater Islam and not to the sometimes very misogynistic practices that have been laid upon it.

As with his earlier book, Lakhous is very concerned to write about the immigrant mentality and what is behind it. In this he is talking about a much more universal mindset than that of any one country or immigrant group. The importance of what has been invested in one representative, the attitude of indifference to one's own personal comfort, the apprehensions and anxieties that fill the minds of those with both legal and illegal residency status--all are movingly shown and worth thinking about.

The book has a few flaws. The ending is a bit abrupt and somewhat disappointing, and particularly in Safia's speech there are some recurring phrases that may work better in Italian, but become fairly obtrusive in this story. These are, for me, minor things, though. The true gift of  Divorce, Islamic Style is its beautiful rendering of a tiny slice of the immigrant community in one specific neighborhood of Rome.