Tuesday, December 27, 2011

and as the curtain comes down over 2011,

it's once again time to close out the year in books. If you're so inclined, you can see everything that I read this year by clicking here.  

and now to the favorites list:
This year's books were, for the most part, so good that in some cases, it's definitely hard to pick just one favorite. So I'm going to give my top favorites:

Overall favorite book of the year:
 Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke

  Top five favorite books of the year in literary fiction (not including my favorite overall book)

 The Thing About Thugs, by Tabish Khair
Jimmy the Terrorist, by Omair Ahmad
Kamchatka, by Marcelo Figueras
 Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru
The Raw Man, by George Makana Clark

Top five favorite crime fiction novels of the year:
 Ashes, by Sergios Gakos
Dregs, by Jorn Lier Horst
The Pledge, by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Black Minutes, by Martin Solares
Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo

Top three speculative fiction/sci-fi/fantasy novels: 
Cold Skin, by Albert Sanchez Pinol
Pym, by Mat Johnson
11/22/63, by Stephen King
Top three nonfiction books of the year:
El Narco:  Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo 
Clandestine in Chile, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
Classic Crimes, by William Roughhead

Favorite book of translated fiction:
Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke

 Strangest good  book of the year: Death in the City of Light, by David King

Others worth mentioning for the year:

Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Misterioso by Arne Dahl
Death on a Galician Shore, by Domingo Villar
The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, by Antonio Tabucchi
To Each His Own, by Leonardo Sciascia
anything at all by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
That Deadman Dance, by Kim Scott

Here's to another good reading year, and above all to peace, health and prosperity to all.

The Raw Man, by George Makana Clark

Jonathan Cape, 2011
323 pp

"Stories want to circle back on themselves."

And in George Makana Clark's The Raw Man, that's exactly what happens.  Told in a reverse-chonological structure, The Raw Man captures not only the main character's family history, but it reveals bits and pieces of  Rhodesia's (now Zimbabwe's) turbulent history during the twentieth century as well.  It is a lovely book about the power of  storytelling, one which begs for reader participation:  the more you learn about the past, the more you want to revisit and re-engage with the present.    It is also a story about the power of blood and identity, one you won't soon forget after having finished the book.

The prologue of the novel, "The Owner of the Story," introduces the reader to house of the narrator, which is actually a metaphor for the novel itself.  It has twelve interior doors, which in passing through them, "you'll find yourself back where you began," a very appropriate beginning for a novel which travels back through different periods of time and links back to the present.  The house is inhabited by the story ghost of Sergeant Gordon, and conjures the smell of peaberry coffee, a lullaby, a garden ... all bits and pieces of Sgt. Gordon's story the house's owner learned from him in years of captivity together as prisoners of war.   As the narrator notes, " I built my house from borrowed memory, every detail as it was described by Gordon long ago in the complete darkness, three miles beneath the earth. "  The story ghost breathes life into Gordon's memories, so that they take form and come alive in the telling.  From the present, the story first skips back to October, 1978, going backward through Gordon's life, revealing scenes of  a very troubled Rhodesia from the 60s through 1980,  and takes a brief foray into the Africa of the 1850s.

The book is not an easy read in terms of subject matter -- the very first story is how Gordon, in the Rhodesian Army,  came to be captured and sent to the hellish copper mines as a prisoner, where on the first day in captivity he witnesses a dead prisoner being roasted on a spit.   But it is there that Gordon tells his stories, where his "life emerged from the darkness as a mosaic of disjointed details...," where his stories were committed to memory by the other prisoners, whose own stories had been lost after years of living in the mine.  His are tales of death,  fear and cruelty in a time of war, mistreatment of "lesser" people by outside colonial powers who've also marginalized and displaced whole societies,  and a family secret that at one point causes a father to hold a pillow over his newborn baby daughter's face. All of these short stories and more creep into the mix before the bigger picture is revealed, not just of Gordon himself, but of his troubled family and of other lives caught up in a very turbulent time in Africa's history.

As each piece of the story is told in a chapter of its own, it slowly begins to dawn on you that in some cultures, this is how history is passed on --  through memories and stories  handed down through the ages, an effort which  helps maintain the ongoing power of tradition and cultural identity that together  have the power to speak to a person's blood.  Sadly, as it also happens,these traditions can also be lost --  here, in the face of wars, cultural displacement and other factors tearing Rhodesia apart,  it  turns out, as one character notes,  that "we have lost our place in the world, and our stories mean nothing now," which is really not true if you think about it ... they just need someone to do the telling and someone to do the listening.

There is something very different going on here in terms of storytelling, and it works well.  In novels with a normal chronological and linear approach, the reader gets an idea that something's going to happen and the time spent reading is to get to whatever that thing might be.  In that sense, the reader is drawn along with the characters and the action of the novel toward an ending.  Here, going backwards, the reader knows that something has happened in the past that takes him or her  to the situation of the present, but it's not exactly clear what that might have been.   Each chapter takes the reader closer to Gordon's roots,  to uncovering his real identity, so that we don't get the full picture of who exactly Gordon is until everything has been exposed, taking us to a beginning.    In the meantime, as each segment of Gordon's life is revealed, there's this compelling urge to revisit the previous section to link things together.  While there's definitely a choppy, rather disconcerting feel to this method,  it works, definitely demanding active, rather than passive reading. It also  leaves  you a bit disoriented as  you're reading one section, wondering "how did we get here?"  and you feel you must  continue reading to find out.  This approach may not be to everyone's taste or liking, but it makes for a more intense and active reading experience.

The Raw Man is a lovely book, one that verges into the realms of the fantastical at times, but at the same time maintains a very realistic  feel as the author goes back through time, connecting disjointed memories into a more cohesive whole. What may be most problematic about this novel is that if you are unfamiliar with the history of the ongoing conflicts in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), it may be confusing trying to sort out who is on what side, or who are the good guys or the bad guys, or why one side is doing what they do, etc.  I wouldn't let that be a deal breaker if you're considering reading this book, but it can get a bit confusing sometimes.  I loved this book, and recommend it most highly.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Doubleday, 2011
387 pp

"When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that.  It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in many ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words...There are many kinds of magic, after all."

Considering I was actually going to give this one a pass, the handwriting was on the wall when I received two signed copies in the mail.  It was at that point pretty much preordained that I would have to read this book. After finishing it,  I was a bit taken aback after reading several reviews of this book at just how nasty people became when reviewing it. As the paragraph quoted above states, "it's in the listener and for each and every ear it will be different."  The book is not without its problems, but when all is said and done, it's a charming little story that will keep you reading.

Moving through the late 19th and early 20th centuries and throughout the world, the novel focuses on the lives of two "illusionists," Celia and Marco. Celia's father, Prospero the Enchanter (aka Hector Bowen) passes on his knowledge of performing illusions that are not really stage magic -- they're the real thing, teaching Celia "enchanting, or forcibly manipulating the universe;"  Marco's guardian, Mr. A H, takes him from the orphanage and sets Marco to the task of learning, among other things, how to manipulate perception.  But rather than being the object of their parents' affections, Celia and Marco are more like pawns to be used to further the ambitions of their mentors.   The fathers have their own unique methods of child raising and teaching: Hector Bowen slices Celia's fingers or smashes her wrists to teach her how to fix things, while Marco is left on his own in a bizarre form of home schooling learning the secrets of the universe and doesn't even know his guardian's name.  Each is being groomed to become the opponent of the other (although they don't know it) as a part of an ongoing, strange competition between the fathers. The venue for this contest is the Cirque des Rêves (the Circus of Dreams), "Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment." What neither Celia nor Marco know is that beyond this strange contest, the stakes are high, not just for the loser (which is bad enough), but for everyone concerned with the circus itself.

The Cirque des Rêves is ultimately at the center of this book, and the imagery set forth by author makes it a magical place. It can appear anywhere at any time, populated with a tarot reader, a contortionist, aerial performers who do their acts with no nets, and more otherworldly kind of people.  There are also magical, elaborately-constructed rooms through which people can walk and take part in the action. The Cirque des Rêves even has a cadre of diehard fans, known as "rêveurs," who, through a connection on the inside, are able to follow the circus to its next location, sporting red scarves over their dark or grey clothing that stick out in a scene where everything is black and white. The circus is only open at night, and is nearly impossible to experience in one visit.

The Night Circus is very much an atmospheric novel, depending more on its imagery than on plot.  The settings, from dinner parties to the circus, are all rather surreal and you never know what's going to happen at any given time, or how things are going to change from one moment to another.  There is a wealth of description and imagery that never lets up, especially regarding the circus, and there are undertones of mystery that run throughout. I'm not a huge fan of love stories, so the love interest didn't really grab me, but there was something different in the at-times ethereal oddness of this particular novel that captured my attention, as did the stories of Celia and Marco's sad childhood.   At the same time, I wasn't as captivated with the characters as I thought I probably should have been. I actually liked some of the side characters (Thiessen, Chandresh, Isobel) much better than the main ones because they had more substance than the principals.  There's also one character who seems to have been thrown in as a convenient plot device to save the ending of this novel, whch just didn't play right with me.  Considering how much effort the author went to in her descriptions, it's mystifying as to why the characters weren't fleshed out as much as they could have been!  Another thing: although I tend not to mind so much when questions within a story are not answered, some of the holes left in the plot made me scratch my head now and then.  But getting past the naysaying, I was not about to put this book down once I started it, and it had a way of holding my attention and drawing me forward to the finish.

This book should really be read by people who are into love stories -- I think that group will likely be its best audience.  At the same time, there's something unique about the imagery that conjures up pictures in your head of how the Cirque des Rêves might actually look and what you might experience there that will keep anyone reading.  Overall -- a good book with a few issues, but one that will take you away for a while as you read it.

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

Hamish Hamilton, 2011 (UK edition)
384 pp

There is just something in my genetic makeup that draws me to anything out of the ordinary, so when I read the blurb on the back cover of Gods Without Men, I knew that this book and I were going to get along splendidly. And we did. 

The setting for this book is California's Mojave desert,  and begins with a brief episode entitled "In the time when animals were men,"  where Native American lore of the Coyote morphs into the tale of a white-bread and ramen noodles-eating, RV-driving crystal meth producer, who dies several times but it is resurrected by other mythical figures: Gila Monster, Southern Fox and Cottontail Rabbit.  At the end of it all the crystal is made and the Coyote disappears, just as in legend the Coyote disappears into the Land of the Dead, waiting for someone to take his place so he can return to the world. The crossing point between the two lands is said to exist in a cave under the Three-Finger Rocks, and it is at or near this natural formation known as The Pinnacles that people have converged over the centuries.  These rocks, with their spires pointing toward the skies, are believed by many to hold the keys to  transcendence -- but what that means to anyone at any given time varies  through time and circumstance.  From Native Americans to UFO cult members to hippies, and on into the contemporary world, different people have written their own meanings onto this landscape. While this all may sound a bit on the new-age side, there's a great deal to this novel that is grounded in real and modern concerns -- war in the Middle East, the economy, and the challenges immigrants face in coming to this country.   It's also a story about wanting to believe and the need people have to understand the incomprehensible, and it's a story about transcendence -- on many different levels.

It is in this bit of desert where where the four-year-old son of Jaz Matharu and his wife Lisa vanishes while the family is on vacation.  Jaz, the son of working-class immigrant parents from India, has a great job on Wall Street and is married to Lisa, whose parents are Jewish.  Jaz's parents continue to maintain old traditions and as much of their culture as they can while living in Baltimore.  When Jaz and Lisa's only child Raj is diagnosed with severe autism, Lisa seeks out reasons for Raj's condition, collecting scientific information, attending conferences, and trying different treatments, diets, etc.  Jaz, on the other hand, deals in reason, and for him, rationality  is a way to "limit the chaos that had overtaken their life." At the same time, he finds himself wishing that their life could back to the way it was before Raj.  Lisa stays at home with Raj while Jaz works, and Jaz's attitude toward Raj's illness and Lisa's efforts adds resentment  to an already-strained situation.  Jaz decides that the family needs a vacation to find time to work through their issues and to heal.  They decide to go west, and find themselves in an old motel near the Pinnacles.  While on an outing, Raj disappears. While the family is put through hell on television, in newspapers and in vicious attacks on the internet, the divide between them grows.  While Jaz insists on placing his faith in reason and physical evidence to find Raj, he is overcome with guilt, wondering if somehow his desire for life the way it used to be has played a part in Raj's disappearance. Lisa withdraws, eventually re-emerging on a different side of things.

Around the core story of Jaz, Lisa and Raj, there are narratives that illuminate others who have passed through the desert and found their way to the Three-Finger Rocks.  These include the stories of a friar in the 1770s, a Mormon miner in the mid 19th century, a veteran of the first world war who brings his wife with him as he studies Native American lore and language, and then there's the story of Schmidt.   Seeking to "get back right with the world" after being consumed with guilt over events in his life, Schmidt began looking for some hidden truth hoping to find his way back. He finds it in  airplanes -- in how "the earth relinquished them and gently welcomed them back." Believing his salvation would come in a union of  the technological with the spiritual, after the Hiroshima bombings, he left his job, went out into the Mojave and looked to the skies for answers, having decided that advanced technology would bring some kind of order to the chaos of the world. Add to this group of characters some Iraqi immigrants hired by the military in a simulation exercise for American troops heading to Iraq, a British rockstar who's hit his own rock bottom, and even a supercomputer named Walter that has been programmed to examine randomness and find patterns, and you'll begin to discover how very unusual a work Kunzru has put together here.  And then, of course, there's the figure of the Coyote that is present throughout the novel. 

Gods Without Men is a wonderful book, one in which events from the past reverberate into the present and vice-versa.  There are some very surreal moments throughout the story as well as many things that are left unexplained. If you must have a linear read you may come away a bit unsatisfied, and you may be looking for patterns that aren't always there or difficult to find.  I spoke to someone else recently who'd also read this book, and her  biggest issue was that she found herself flipping forward to catch back up with the story of Lisa and Jaz, and found many of the rest of the stories getting in the way. But I think that if Lisa, Jaz and Raj were  the main focus  of the novel, that would have been the story that the author would probably have written.  It definitely may not be for everyone, but it is highly engrossing and I found it to be very approachable as a reader.  Awesome book -- and I definitely recommend it for anyone who wants something very different.