Monday, January 31, 2011

*Classic Crimes, by William Roughead

NYRB Classics
560 pp

And now, my favorite of this fearsome foursome of NYRB books, Classic Crimes by William Roughead.  You can view what I have to say about this one at the crime segments portion of my reading journal.  If you are an aficionado of  true crimes of the past, you definitely won't want to miss it.

This one also goes on my "highly recommended" list of books.

*Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household

NYRB Classics, 2007
182 pp.
originally published 1939

I first noticed this book some time ago when perusing the CWA list of Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, first published in 1990.  With the hope of someday being able to get through all of these books,  I bought the NYRB edition of Rogue Male to add to my ever-growing mountain range of books to read.  Funny though -- it's not what I would consider a crime novel, per se; imho it reads more like a spyish/thriller type thing, somewhat reminiscent of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. Nevertheless, it was quite intriguing (and I can now cross it off of the list), well written and life outside of this book just sort of melted away as I was reading it.  It's the sort of story where once you get comfortable with the action, things take another turn, so that you never quite get into a complacent mode and it ends up leaving you a bit unsettled.

As the novel opens, the narrator, an unnamed man (likely someone of importance and means in Britain)  has just escaped death after he misses his target of an attempted assassination somewhere in Central Europe, an unnamed dictator. He has obviously been held and questioned, his captors wondering whether or not he was an agent of the British government on a mission. His answer was that he was "a sportsman who couldn't resist the temptation to stalk the impossible," hoping to make them believe that he was a "bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game" who found "perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth." In the long run, he realized that no matter what they believed, his days were numbered, and that his captors would have to kill him. After being severely tortured, he was taken to the edge of a cliff and put over, but he managed to hold on until he dropped, crashing into a deep marsh. The plan -- his body was to be discovered for some time at the foot of the cliff so that it would look like an accident. But the narrator has other plans that did not include dying.  The authorities realize soon enough that he's still alive, and he has to make his escape without leaving any traces. That story is harrowing enough, but the main thrust of the novel is what happens once he makes it back to England ... it is then that  that the reality becomes one of the hunter becoming the hunted as he realizes that no matter who or where he is, his enemies cannot allow him to stay alive. He has to literally "go to ground," in hopes of surviving.

Rogue Male is written in the first person, a look back at events that transpired some time earlier.  The narrator doesn't always put things in a linear perspective, and if not read carefully, the story might seem a bit confusing; above all, the why of how our narrator finds himself with a rifle in his hands aiming at this dictator is not so clear.  He claims not to be an anarchist or to have any specific political leanings, says he's not on a government mission, so the question is one of how all of this came to be.  Eventually even the reader doesn't know whether or not he can actually trust the narrator on that point.  But the in the long run, what makes this book such a  good read is how the author sets the tension level high to begin with, then ratchets it up bit by bit to pull off a rather nail-biting tale of suspense.  His use of first-person narrative offers his readers a more  more human and realistic perspective of the plight of the main character, and there's no space or time wasted on superfluous dialogue that would have little or no bearing on the story. And by keeping the whys until the very end of the novel, the reader finds him or herself focused only on the immediate action at hand.

As noted, once I started reading, things outside of me and this book just disappeared and I managed to finish this novel in one sitting.  There's a certain element of the whole "cat-and-mouse" game here, especially toward the end, and it was a delight to watch events transpire as I felt my own tension level rising wondering how the heck the narrator was going to get out of his various predicaments.  This is one of those novels you have to read for yourself to fully appreciate, but it's wholly satisfying as far as action, writing and especially getting into the psyche of the narrator as he fights to stay alive and out of the clutches of his enemies.  People who enjoy well-written suspense will enjoy this book, and those who are interested in the early days of the genre will probably also like it.

*Clandestine in Chile, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

NYRB Classics, 2010
originally published 1986, Henry Holt
translated by Asa Zatz

In 1973, Salvador Allende's government collapsed under the weight of a military coup orchestrated by the U.S. and Augusto Pinochet came to power.  Immediately on the heels of this coup, any dissidence (or perceived dissidence) was violently repressed, leaving thousands of people dead, imprisoned or just gone without a trace, and the repression went on over the period of Pinochet's reign.  Thousands more went into exile to escape this regime and some were forbidden to recross the Chilean borders.  In 1985, one of these exiles, film director Miguel Littín, then living in Spain, decided to return to Chile secretly to make a documentary about life under the military dictatorship. The plan was actually hatched earlier, when he failed to find his name on any of the lists of exiles allowed to return published by the Chilean government . He did however, find it on a list of 5,000 people not allowed to come back.   He notes

I had lost the image of my country in a fog of nostalgia. The Chile I remembered no longer existed, and for a filmmaker there could be no surer way of rediscovering a lost country than by going back to it and filming it from the inside.

 Leaving his wife (who had also fled from Chile) and children, and with the help of members of the Chilean resistance, Littín carefully organized several film crews to shoot in different areas, and also set up a conduit for getting the ultimately more than 100,000 feet of film out of the country. Clandestine in Chile is Littín's story about his experiences and what he encountered while he was there.  Author Gabriel García Márquez (himself a friend of Allende) interviewed Littín about his experiences, and according to Francisco Goldman, who wrote the introduction to this work, "whittled down six hundred pages of transcript into this hundred-page book." Littín procured false papers, divested himself of  his facial hair and lost weight (in case people remembered him) and with help from an activist who posed as his wife, entered Chile in the guise of a businessman from Uruguay. His total time in the country was about six weeks, during which time he and his three separately-assigned film crews (assisted by Chilean crews who also belonged to the Popular Front): the Italian crew would be ostensbly filming of a documentary on Chile's Italian immigrants, with the Italian architect of the Moneda Palace as one of their subjects; the French group would be doing an ecological film; and finally, the third crew with Dutch credentials would be studying recent earthquakes.  None of the crews knew about any of the others (offering a sort of "hush-hush" aspect to this book), and they would actually be focusing on the Chilean people who continued to live under Pinochet's dictatorship and how well or not the country had fared in the 12 years since the takeover.  Littín and various members of his crews and activist friends had a few hair-raising experiences that read here and there like a spy novel (strange phone calls in the middle of the night, being followed, moving from hotel to hotel, post-curfew escapes etc.,), and Marquez does a wonderful job putting down as much as he can in a true-life reportage that resulted in this book.

Clandestine in Chile is very well written and absorbs the reader at the start.  As noted, there are a few semi heart-stopping moments, but some of Littin's experiences are also poignant; for example, when he "accidentally" finds himself at the home of his mother.

Littin's observations in 1985 offer a brief glimpse into how the old regime had not been forgotten in Chile some 12 years later, and how the people both underground and publicly were doing what they could to fight back, even in small measures.  Frankly, I was a bit moved at how difficult (and quite frankly even strange) the whole process must have been for Littin, and how very odd he must have felt to be back in his native country to which he (as of 1985) could never return. My only criticism of the book is that parts of it seemed to have taken on a bit of literary license and were a bit fluffy, especially during some of the conversations in which Littin was involved. Yet on the whole, the 1973 coup, and the ensuing regime of Pinochet and his repression of dissenters are all topics of great personal interest, and the book offers another part of the human story for those who are also interested in this topic.  I'd also love to see the resulting documentary, but as of yet have had no luck in even locating a copy.  Highly recommended.

*On the Yard, by Malcolm Braly.

Tranquility in balance again, time to get back to work.  Every so often I just have to take a break from everything, slow down, take time for myself and then come back.  That old saying about "when it rains it pours" pretty much sums everything up over the last few weeks.  But things are easing up, I feel better and am ready to turn the computer back on, just in time to end the month with four books from NYRB classics. There were others I finished this month, but they can wait a couple of days.

So let's get on with it, yes?

On the Yard, by Malcolm Braly
NYRB Classics, 2002
376 pp.

Originally published 1967, Little Brown and Co.

To be quite honest, I'd never heard of this book before I went looking for NYRB titles to read.  Another NYRB title I'd read earlier, Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter, also dealt with life in prison, but it examines the causes of why the main characters went to prison, what happened to them while they were there, and then what happened after they were released.  Unlike that novel, the action in  On the Yard occurs nearly completely within prison walls, and the story is told through the voices of a group of prisoners as well as by people who work there.  As a matter of fact, the author, Malcolm Braly, had written three earlier novels while incarcerated, then started On the Yard while doing a stint at San Quentin. He had to do it in secret since it was based on his own experience and he was threatened with revocation of parole if he continued to write it, forcing him to write in secret and to then delay its publication.

In this book, the characters run the show and drive the narrative  -- the author often floats from character to character, as noted by Jonathan Lethem, who provides the book's introduction:

...moving...through the minds and moments of dozens of characters, some recurrently, some only for a sole brief visitation which nearly always proves definitive. Three or four of these are into the minds of the prison's keepers, including that of the morose, long-enduring Warden. The rest are a broad array of prisoners, some "hardened" repeaters, some newly arrived at San Quentin, some floating in between and trying to measure the rightness and permanence of their placement inside those walls.

Lethem's assessment is quite accurate.  How these people deal with the stultifying sameness that is their life day after day is one of the main themes of this novel.  For example, there's Billy Oberholster (aka Chilly Willy), imprisoned for several armed robberies, who made his way to the top of the food chain so to speak on the inside by being at the head of several operations: he runs a usurious cigarette loan business, has the corner on nasal inhalants (which the prisoners use to get high on amphetamine sulphate), and runs a tidy black-market business that offers him a great many advantages while serving out his time. His influence is spread everywhere, down to his ability to maintain a cell with no roomies.  He is the king of the yard - and uses others for his dirty work, keeping his hands clean. He counts among his friends Society Red and Nunn, a repeater back only after half a year of freedom.  Then there's Stick, a sort of Neo-Nazi who survives through creating scenarios in his head with himself as the centerpiece -- constantly staging "new myths" in which he plays the major part, imagining himself as  vampire and deliverer.   Another most interesting character is Lorin -- an intelligent 22 year-old, in for stealing a car, spending his time trying to fend off the attention of another inmate who has a thing about shoes.  When he's not dreaming about Kim Novak, Lorin works on his poetry writing. One of the most interesting characters is Paul Juleson, who's been incarcerated for the murder of his wife, and who wants nothing more than to be left on his own, often living in favorite fantasies, trying to steer cleer of the other inmates,  "watching the animals from a distance and taking every precaution necessary to keep free of them in all essential ways."  He spends his days mostly reading and visiting the library on his lunch break; the only person on the outside who still keeps in contact with him is his aunt, who sends him $5.00 each year on his birthday.  When Juleson decides to spend his not-yet-received birthday cash on cigarettes, he runs afoul of Chilly Willy when the money fails to arrive, leading to one of the major plots that runs throughout the novel.  Each character's worst points are carefully revealed rather than soft soaped, yet the author provides them with a fair amount of points with which the reader finds him or herself showing some empathy -- including those outside cell bars: the psychologists, guards and even the warden and his servant. For readers who are more interested in plot, there are several stories at work that will keep you actively engrossed in the story. But it is Braly's characters, each brought to life (if even only for a few lines in some cases) that will draw the reader's attention on a deeper level.   

While its content may seem tame to modern readers, considering what goes on in today's prisons, On the Yard is still a solid read.  Kurt Vonnegut's blurb on the back cover notes that this book is "Surely the great American prison novel." In my case, it would be difficult to agree with his statement since I don't have a lot of reading experience in that area, but I did find On the Yard to be quite engrossing once the cast of characters was introduced. It seemed a bit slow at first (as character-driven novels often can be), but as I started the getting the picture of what happens within the prison walls (how the hierarchies play out, the interplay between prison officials and the prisoners, and among the prisoners themselves), I couldn't put this book down.  The author, Malcolm Braly, spent a large part of his life behind bars in different prisons, so he knows what he's talking about and this is exemplified in the book's realistic and gritty tone.  Obviously, the subject matter might not be for everyone, but it is one of those novels that you won't soon forget after putting down, not just because of the story, but because of the writing and Braly's mastery of characterization.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Two challenges from different ends of the earth

If you're up for a challenge or two, why not try these?

From Sweden, Zee at Notes from the North is hosting the Nordic Challenge for 2011:

here's some info (from Zee's blog post):

When: January 1st, 2011- December 31st 2011

There will be 5 levels. The levels are
Huginn and Muninn: Read 2 books
Freya: Read 3-5 books
Tor: Read 6-10 books
Odin: Read 11-20 books
Valhalla: Read 20+ books

You can read any book by any author born in a Nordic country (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and/or Sweden) or a book set in a Nordic country. They can be from any genre.

Then there's Jo's Aussie Author Challenge 2011 at Booklover Book Reviews
(and I see she chose the Platypus ... very cool):

according to Jo:

Challenge period:  1 January 2011 -  31 December 2011

Objective: Read and review books written by Australian Authors - physical books, ebooks and audiobooks, fiction and non-fiction!

Challenge Levels: TOURIST or TRUE BLUE!

TOURIST - Read and review 3 books by 3 different Aussie Authors
TRUE BLUE - Read and review 12 books by Australian authors (at least 9 different authors)

so I guess it's time to plow through the bookshelves and select accordingly.  9 different authors? Whew! I'm totally up for suggestions, especially in the crime fiction realm.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

January 2011 -- New York Review Books (NYRB)

New York Review Books

Happy new year to all -- it's time to start all over again with another year of reading.  I decided to kick off my new year by focusing my main effort this month on books with this familiar logo. If you haven't seen these books yet, you can find more information about them at the nyrb website where you can see for yourself the wide variety of books that come from this press.

Plans this month include the following (probably not in any particular order):

Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household     
The Tenants of Moonbloom, by Edward Lewis Wallant
Stoner, by John Williams
Clandestine in Chile, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Tun-Huang, by Yasushi Inoue
On the Yard, by Malcom Braly
The Singapore Grip, by JG Farrell
- and last but definitely not least, Summer Will Show, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

 Ambitious project, yes, but I've been collecting these (and more by NYRB) for quite a while and it's time they received my undivided attention. 

As usual, I'll be reading and reporting on other books in my neverending tbr pile, both here and over at the crime segments portion of my book journal.  January should be a good month!