Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shamini Flint, Agatha Christie with a Social Conscience

My friend Don loves to look for the road not taken. He is constantly coming up with names of books and authors that I've never heard of, telling me how he just followed a link to another link and another and voila! He has introduced me to new worlds that I might otherwise have missed - a fine thing for one who claims to "read around the world."

Thus, today I'll be writing about the quite wonderful Shamini Flint, http://shaminiflint.com/, prolific author of crime novels set throughout southeast Asia. Now that we've found her we won't rest until we've read them all.

If I had to choose an author that Ms. Flint reminds me of, it would be Agatha Christie. Like Miss Marple and Poirot before him, the Sikh Inspector Singh is an over the top character imbued with a list of personal quirks that will endear him to some and annoy others. He's smart and intuitive, selfish and impatient, but he always gets his man. Shamini has created a multi-faceted policeman who generously shares his musings with  the reader, allowing us into the thought processes of a good cop.

I've read three of the novels in the Inspector Singh series so far. Each adheres to a strict formula but it's not in the least off-putting. In fact, it's what drew me to the books. Singh is a Singaporean but his higher-ups are always sending him to other countries where his expertise is needed. One gets the impression that his bosses look for any opportunity to get the pompous detective out of their hair.

Once he arrives at his destination, be it Bali, India, or Cambodia, he acquires a local aide-de-camp, assigned to show him the ropes, but with whom he generally has a testy relationship. It's great fun to watch Singh slowly acclimate to a new culture, grudgingly confer respect on his foreign peers, and eschew the limelight, allowing the locals to take credit for their crime-solving prowess.

Especially impressive is how much factual history and research goes into each book. Shamini Flint was a lawyer before she found her true calling, but she could as well have been an educator. Whether we are learning about the international war crimes tribunal that was held in Phnom Penh after the Cambodian genocide, or getting into the hearts and minds of the terrorists who bombed tourist hotels in Indonesia, Ms. Flint forces readers to open their eyes to multiple points of view.

In "A Curious Indian Cadaver," Flint channels Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," by introducing readers to Mrs. Singh's niece, a young scientist who secretly labors in a Mumbai slum where she suspects that the children are being poisoned by effluent from her family's chemical plant. When Ashu disappears it's left to Singh, and we the readers, to decide if she riled up the wrong people or was simply fleeing an arranged marriage - my favorite puzzle so far. Police procedurals with a message? Who could ask for more?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Story of the Lost Child

Last night I finished the fourth, and according to Europa Press, the final book in the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. http://elenaferrante.com/ I scarcely know where to begin to talk about these books that have made such an impression on me. The characters have been so much a part of my life for months now. I loved them and hated them. They soared and then fell, becoming all too human. And Italy? The country of my heart was exposed as the passion- inducing yet dangerously corrupt land that it is.

 I don't believe that I've ever read a more realistic description
of a friendship, one that spans over fifty years and involves
 so many losses, misunderstandings, great acts of love, and acts of
The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)ferocious cruelty. This is no fairytale. Readers must be prepared to examine their deepest thoughts and emotions, the ones they'd never want to share with another human being, and admit that these are a normal part of our human condition.

The ambivalent feelings that Lila and Elena hold for each other manifest themselves from grade school where their teachers pit one against the other. The girls are drawn to one another until they become two sides to the same coin. Lila seeming to be the more powerful force, Elena the wanna be.

Elena sees Lila's early marriage, a means of escaping grinding poverty, as capitulation. For Lila it's a means to an end. Elena's star rises when she leaves Naples for academia while Lila's influence in Naples' business world threatens the powerful hold that the Solara brothers have over the old neighborhood.

Elena thrives when away from Naples. She is fecund with words, publishing feminist tracts to critical acclaim, and fecund biologically, reveling in the pregnancies that produce two beautiful girls. Lila's body, on the other hand, is repelled by the sex act and is sickened by her own pregnancy.

At times I questioned Lila's magnetic pull on Elena. Why would such a smart, outspoken woman be drawn to Lila's subversive undermining of Elena's hard-won confidence. I wanted to yell out to Elena, "No! Don't return, don't let her tear you down." And though Elena questions her own motivations, she does eventually move back to Naples where the two women's symbiotic relationship becomes a destructive force, poisoning all the people they love.

These novels are absolutely Shakespearean in their depth and insight. Though much praise has been (well-deservedly) lavished on the translator, Ann Goldstein, http://on.wsj.com/1lz34Sb I think that another draw is the anonymity that the author has been able to maintain over the years and through all the publicity. This mystery of authorship and the mystery of this finale force us to accept the uncertainties of life. Don't miss this tour de force.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Some of you may be old enough to remember what might be called the first reality TV show, "This is Your Life." It was a sometimes awkward, always maudlin, tear-inducing show that chose some unsuspecting person from the audience and highlighted the ups and downs of their life so far. Often there were walk-ons from one's past, someone with whom the "star" had interacted without even realizing the effect the star had had on said person's life.

Well, for some reason, after reading a couple of reviews of Jonathan Evison's (http://www.jonathanevison.net) new novel, "This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" I was expecting a comedy. I should have thought of the TV show earlier! While there are some laugh-worthy moments in Evison's book, they are wry laughs, not guffaws. For this is a book, as he says in his acknowledgements, dedicated to all the unfulfilled women out there who dreamed of greater things but settled for less, either because of the times in which they lived or because they were thwarted by the pressures of marriage and children.
This is Your Life, Harriest Chance!

Younger women may have trouble even relating to this story about seventy-eight-year-old Harriet but it's worth the read as a cautionary tale. We give up our dreams at our peril. Harriet has just buried her husband Bernard after an emotionally draining year and a half as his full-time caretaker. Bernard's fall to Alzheimer's disease was quick and relentless.

Harriet answers the phone one day shortly after Bernard's death to be informed that Bernard has won a cruise to Alaska. Alaska? Harriet had no idea that Bernard wanted to go to Alaska, nor was she aware that he had entered a sweepstakes. But, as Harriet always has, she defers to Bernard's judgment, deciding that if he thought they should have gone then she'll go, inviting her best friend Mildred to accompany her.

Evison toggles back and forth, in short, punchy chapters, over the seventy-eight years of Harriet's life, slowly revealing a complex picture of a woman whose self-esteem was persistently battered by a cold, uncaring mother, while her father enticed her with work in his law firm, a place that teased her into believing she could have a career in law, though it was more likely her role was simply to be sexy window dressing.

Finally free to make her own decisions, Harriet embarks on the Alaskan cruise even after Mildred reneges at the last minute, handing Harriet an explanation letter that gets shoved into her luggage along with Bernard's ashes. I found myself so hoping that this would be Harriet's chance at liberation.

Ultimately though, this novel is less uplifting and more than a little discouraging. Harriet's relationships with her son Skip and daughter Caroline have been tense and unfulfilling. Bernard, we discover, has been an absentee father even when he's been home in his chair, head buried in a newspaper. Now that he's dead he wants to redeem himself, to ask forgiveness, popping up by Harriet's side at most inopportune moments. Yes, you must suspend disbelief to read this book.

Jonathan Evison has been called wistful and wise and bighearted. He wants women like our moms, our teachers, and all the other unsung heroes who subsumed their dreams and desires so that we could fulfill ours, to know that he sees them. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not he succeeded.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A New Year to Read Around the World

It's here! 2016. What will the literary gods bring us this year? I'll be on the inside track in May when I attend Book Expo America in Chicago. In the meantime I'll be catching up on recommendations from the past years while trying to stay in keeping with the international theme of this blog - reading books set all around the world.

Of the four books that I've already finished in the first eight days of the new year I must first talk with you about one of last year's most touted novels.
At first the cynical Sally thought that all the buzz was simply a case of insider privilege. Mr. Clegg is a well-known literary agent with a great reputation. Who knew that while he was promoting the books of others he was quietly struggling with his own work of art? http://www.billcleggauthor.com/
What I find most surprising about Clegg's novel is that, even though it revolves around a horrific tragedy in a small Connecticut town, it is not in the least bit a depressing read. Perhaps this is because the explosion that destroys June Reid's home, killing everyone she's ever cared for, happens immediately, before we get to know the characters for ourselves.
As a reader, I felt that the catastrophe was almost too overwhelming to get my head around, and I sensed that Mr. Clegg's intention was not to focus on the deaths but on the excruciating effect on those left behind. Most of us have suffered the protracted illness and eventual death of a person dear to us. We come to accept this as the natural progression of life. But to lose everyone in a single, meaningless moment?
As the characters slowly reveal themselves in short vignettes of interior monologue we learn of the intricate threads that tie each of them to each other. Clegg proves the John Donne truth that "no man is an island."
June's tragedy is that she has been guilty of hurting many people over the course of her life and has yet to fully reconcile with her daughter Lolly, her lover Luke, her former husband Adam, all now gone. It is this guilt and the concomitant shame that drives her away from any offers of help. She doesn't believe she deserves to live among others. Her exile to the west coast is self-imposed and is necessary if she is ever to recover enough to re-engage with the world.
"Did You Ever Have a Family" is deceptively simple, a quick, easy read, but one that left me thoughtfully pondering for days after closing the cover. Clegg, who has written about his struggles with addiction, and his break and reconciliation with his father, ("Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man")has found in this novel another way to share with readers his complex take on the dichotomy between the difficulty of, and our ultimate redemption from, human interconnectedness.  

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tough Choices, My Personal Favorites for 2015

I love lists and was so hoping that I could use the mellifluous sounding "115 in 2015" as my theme for this New Year's Eve post, but alas, it was not to be. I finished 111 books this year, not all of them published in 2015, just books that came to my attention. Though it was a great year for the publishing industry (http://nyti.ms/1UhXTlf) I admit that I had a difficult time finding a book I could really rave about. This year's list is a bit more personal, a list of books, fiction and non, that spoke to me on some deep level beginning with:

1. Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Trilogy. I cheated on this one since I felt that the three books are truly one long novel divided up by publisher, Europa Editions, simply for ease of reading. These novels about the strange, symbiotic relationship between two school girls, Elena and Lila, spans decades using the political and cultural evolution of Italy, from Naples to Milan, for a backdrop.
http://bit.ly/1PEbK6R, http://bit.ly/1OyWWXP 

My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One

2. "Being Mortal," by Atul Gawande. This book came to me last January when my brother was facing his final days of life. Death and dying with dignity has long been an obsession of mine back to the days when my buddy Andrea Carter and I brought a six week discussion series (not very well attended, I might add) to our library. I'm still amazed at how few of us are able to speak honestly about the one thing we all share as humans - the end of life. This book should be required reading. http://bit.ly/1R18q74  
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

3. "Redeployment," by Phil Klay. This powerful series of short stories brings the chaos of the war in Afghanistan into our minds and hearts. "When will we ever learn.....when will we ever learn." http://bit.ly/1L1Vl9o    

4. "Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf. Small but mighty, this is a gorgeous novel about two lonely souls having the courage to make a connection, flaunting small town small-mindedness, rising above salaciousness. The joy of the physical is not bound by age. http://bit.ly/1OurJhW   
Our Souls at Night: A novel

5. "Florence Gordon," by Brian Morton. An opinionated woman who refuses to age gracefully, beautifully rendered by a male author, Florence is this year's Olive Kitteridge in all her curmudgeonly glory. I hope to be her when I grow up.
Florence Gordon

6. "Between the World and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reading this book, a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, will be the closest you'll ever come to knowing what it is like to walk in another man's skin. If you want to understand the power of the #blacklivesmatter movement, if you hope to even remotely fathom what it's like to be a black man in America today, look no further.
Between the World and Me

7. "My Song," by Harry Belafonte. This memoir is the perfect juxtaposition of Mr. Coates' cri de Coeur from a new generation. I knew that Belafonte was a force to be reckoned with in the black movement of the '60's but I had no idea what a powerful role he played and continues to play, always following his own conscience, his own song. This memoir reads like a history of the civil right movement in the twentieth century.  
My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance

8. "Small Mercies," by Eddie Joyce is an incredible debut novel, one of my must reads of 2015. Set in Staten Island, New York, in a middle-class Irish-Italian neighborhood, Joyce captures to perfection the means in which small-town Americans rally around their own during times of extreme trouble, in this case the death of a local fireman at ground zero. http://bit.ly/1RT1zMA 
Small Mercies: A Novel

9. "The Tsar of Love and Techno," by Anthony Marra. Here's a portion of what I had to say in this starred review for "Library Journal." Love and war, loyalty and betrayal, are themes inextricably joined in the literary imagination. Marra, who dazzled readers and critics with his debut novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," once again captivates with this collection of stories spanning 75 years. Linked by generations of political rebels, artists, soldiers, and criminals, these tales pay homage to the victims of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resulting wars in Chechnya.   

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories

10. "City on Fire," by Garth Risk Hallberg. This ferociously ambitious first novel apparently didn't live up to the hype. Readers today just aren't prepared to tackle these wonderful 800-plus page behemoths. But oh, what they're missing. Difficult to describe, this is a Dickensian romp through 1970's New York city, long before Mayor Bloomberg came along to clean things up. It's a mash-up of sex, drugs, rock and roll, the art scene, AIDS, nihilist philosophers in cahoots with businessmen of dubious wealth. It's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," on steroids.    
City on Fire: A novel

Now I'd like to hear from you. I have a give-a-way, a much anticipated novel by Charles Bock. It's called "Alice and Oliver," and I've just sent my review in to "Library Journal," so I'm free to mail this out to the first person who comments on this list or is willing to share their own favorites of 2015. There's so much I haven't read. Tell me what I need to put on my list for the new year. Thanks so much for reading!