Monday, November 25, 2013
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
I picked up A Tale for the Time Being after it got a starred review in Kirkus; I tend to do well with starred Kirkus books, and I liked this one right from the opening lines. These lines come from a diary written by a teenage girl, Nao, who grew up in America but has moved back to Japan with her mother and father. Her father is unemployed and steeped in shame and depression; her mother is trying to support the family, and Nao is just trying to survive. When the book opens Nao's tone is cheeky and funny, but her story goes to some very dark places, and very quickly.
Coupled with Nao is a writer named Ruth, living on a Canadian island with her boyfriend Oliver. They share a quiet life, but grief and anxiety lie beneath the surface. Ruth's mother has recently died, and when she finds Nao's diary washed up on the beach, she becomes more and more concerned about the sixteen year-old's fate.
She has reason to be concerned. The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred rather near to where Ruth thinks the diary came from, and Nao becomes more depressed and suicidal as the narrative of the diary wears on. There are some interesting things going on in this book. Ruth reads Nao's diary as if it will contain the end to Nao's story, but if Nao is alive or dead at the moment Ruth is reading, the answer won't lie within the diary's pages. Ruth has to negotiate her relationship with the text, to understand what she can and can't learn from it, the same way we always have to understand our position in relationship to what we're reading. In this way the book is really about the act of reading itself, about how to understand what we're reading and to understand that there are things we can never know.
Nao's driving motivation for writing the diary isn't so much to recount her own story but to tell the story of her great-grandmother, an elderly Buddhist nun whose son died as kamikaze pilot at the beginning of World War 2. This story is one she comes upon by accident, much the same way Ruth discovers Nao's. Like Ruth, Nao is left to make sense of the story by herself, with only the most slender of clues. In this way the book closes in on itself a little, like a nesting doll, stories within stories.
A Tale for the Time Being was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the fact that it lost to The Luminaries only makes me want to read that book because I need to know what made it better! Time Being is a quiet book that I didn't expect to receive recognition- it certainly wasn't hyped or promoted that I noticed- but I think it's a great book for the literary reader who has the time and stamina for a difficult, thoughtful and intricate book. It's not for every reader; it doesn't have much plot, and it's more about introspection than action. And it's long, too. But it's worth it, if you're up to it.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.
Monday, November 18, 2013
As far as reading, I finished Jane A Long Way From Verona this week. It was her debut novel back in 1971 but it's just out from Europa, capitalizing on the success of her Old Filth trilogy. It's geared more towards younger readers but it was enjoyable. Europa Editions is giving away a copy on the Europa Challenge blog; I encourage you to check it out there.
And I'm still working on The Goldfinch, and still enjoying it. What can I say, it's a long book.
And you? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.
Monday, November 11, 2013
I finished and reviewed The Midnight Choir last week; I'm trying to get better about reviewing books right away and I still have a backlog of unreviewed books from this year, but what can you do.
That's it for me this week! What are you reading? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.
Friday, November 8, 2013
The Midnight Choir is a great crime novel and depicts a whole seedy world of Irish crime, but it is also one of the bleakest books I've read in a while. Basically, this book can be summed up thusly: Life sucks, then you die a horrible meaningless death and nothing changes.
At its heart is the story of Garda Inspector Harry Synnott, who a long time ago got involved in an IRA-related cop killing and ratted out some fellow officers for police brutality. The police still got their man, but they may not have gotten to the truth, and Synnott didn't exactly make friends. Years pass and Synnott, stuck in place career-wise, is offered a shiny sinecure out of the country, if only he can charm the politician making the appointment. On his plate is a rape case and a jewelry theft and things seem to be going well except that another old murder case is about to come back from the dead and ruin everything.
Tangled up in all this is Dixie Peyton, a desperate woman struggling to keep her head above water, and a gang lord named Lar Mackendrick, deranged with grief at the loss of his brother. Dixie needs money and a way out of her troubles; she tries to sell a tip to Synnott regarding the aforementioned Mackendrick but things don't exactly go her way. Things don't go anyone's way in this story, unless you're a bad guy or dead and nothing worse can happen to you.
The Midnight Choir is set in contemporary Dublin, as the Celtic Tiger economic boom was fading but hadn't yet gone completely bust. Everyone's on the downswing, except the criminals. I have to say, Kerrigan draws a pretty convincing picture of all the ways life can go wrong. Poor Dixie. Just when she thinks she's going to skip the country with the payout cash from the corrupt cop and kidnap her kid from foster care- well, I won't spoil it, but, well, you know. It's not pretty. I felt for Dixie. Kerrigan really makes us sympathize with this very troubled and deeply messed up young woman. Synnott I didn't feel about one way or the other. But Dixie and her friend Shelly get my sympathy.
Anyway I'd recommend The Midnight Choir to noir fans and anyone else interested in contemporary Irish literature that isn't about shamrocks and sunshine. So if you're a Maeve Binchy reader this probably isn't for you. I admire Kerrigan's artistry and reportage but man was this a downer.
This is my 15th book for 2013's Europa Challenge. I may not make it to my goal of 24 but I'm back
on the wagon anyway.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is a "novel in documents," a kind of epistolary fictional meditation on the life of a Polish Jew named Daniel Stein who survives the Holocaust and World War 2 by, among other things, translating for the Gestapo. Then during the war he saves the lives of 300 Jews during a raid and eventually becomes a Catholic priest and moves to Israel. Daniel's story is based on that of a real man, Oswald Rufeisen, and while the character Daniel is based on him, Daniel is not he himself. Award-winning Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya tells Daniel's story through letters, diaries and official documents and thus the story shifts both in time and perspective. Over the course of the novel connections form between the characters, who seem disparate and diverse at first but who are all connected through a small Polish community torn apart by murder.
The book starts with Ewa Manukyan, a Polish woman searching for information on her father. Her mother Rita is a difficult, unlikeable woman, aging and needy, who had in her youth a reputation as a ferocious soldier. Ewa cannot relate to her at all, and she begins a friendship with Esther Gantman, a wealthy exile living in Boston who, together with her late husband, worked in the Polish ghetto of Emsk during the war. Ewa and Esther's story connects with others, who then connect with Daniel Stein, the enigmatic man at the center of this very complex story.
Brother Daniel's story starts as one of shifting identity. He hides in plain sight by pretending to be Polish; a gifted linguist, he speaks German and Polish fluently and is an accomplished horseman. He works for the Gestapo but tries to undermine them at the same time; he finds both danger and friendship in this life, and has to make heartbreaking choices with consequences that will haunt him for the rest of his life. After the war he establishes a church in Israel that attempts to return to a time before Christianity split from its Jewish founders and then with itself.
In doing so, he steps into the quagmire of Israel's many religious sects and their zealots. He runs afoul of the Catholic Church with some unorthodox preaching and he runs afoul of the state of Israel by asking for Israeli citizenship as a returned Jew. But he has friends. His followers love him; his assistant Hilda, a German woman who has made a home for herself in the desert, would, it seems, follow him to the ends of the earth but her love for him isn't romantic. That she shares with Musa, an Arab Christian who also assists Brother Daniel's ministry. And Brother Daniel has a powerful friend in his boyhood acquaintance Karol, who ascends to the highest office the Church has to offer. Over the years his life intersects with many lives, and Ulitskaya tells their stories alongside his; they embellish each other and create a detailed panorama of life during and after the war.
I loved this book, and so did many, but it has been criticized, too. Some have said that Daniel is a distant figure, that we never get close to him, and because this is an essentially epistolary novel we see Daniel either through the eyes of others as mediated by whatever form Ulitskaya is using, or through his own public statements, so I think that's a valid observation but it doesn't limit the book's power for me. I think she means to hold him at a distance, to make him unknowable even as she meditates on him. The book has also received criticism for its negative portrayal of life in Israel in the years following World War 2- the inflexibility of its government and the fractiousness of its people. I would agree that she does not portray Israel as a paradise but I'm not sure that's a valid critique of the novel as such.
So yeah, I loved it. Reading Ulitskaya is always a treat and unfortunately only four of her many books are available in English. I've read two others and I have the fourth on the shelf. I almost don't want to read it right away because then I'm all out! I loved this book for its characters and the way Ulitskaya unwinds their relationships, and I loved the way they evolve and grow. The characters have distinct voices, problems, perspectives and limitations; Daniel himself lurks in every story even when he's not mentioned explicitly. Ulitskaya uses these other people as lenses through which to see and understand him, to work out what made him tick and how he became this strange and unusual person. And I drank in every word. It's very character-driven as you might guess, very emotional too. Ulitskaya deals with a lot of heavy issues that will raise strong emotions in many readers. As a Catholic with a Pope who seems to value compassion as highly as dogma, it was fascinating to read about a priest similarly inclined, set at a time when religious movements were actively staking claim to land and followers based on dogma. And I want to learn more about Rufeisen, the man behind the story. And I want to read more Ulitskaya. Actually, I can't wait to!
A serious and moving literary novel, Daniel Stein is definitely one of my favorites of 2013.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.
Monday, November 4, 2013
I put The Goldfinch aside for now, because its topic was hitting a little close to home for me at the moment, and picked up a crime novel instead.
What about you? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.