Saturday, June 30, 2012

June reading roundup

This month's focus was on historical fiction and I have to say I didn't read as many books as I wanted to in this category.  I'm too easily sidetracked because it's summer, I think, and the weather in Florida isn't nearly as bad or hot as it is elsewhere for a change.

So here's what happened in my June:

historical fiction: 
  • On the Proper Use of Stars, by Dominique Fortier  -- Victorian England, Franklin Expedition
  • Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd (read in May) --  WWI, England, Vienna
  • Pao, by Kerry Young  -- Jamaica 1938-1989  (My copy needs a home, free, if anyone in the US wants it)
  • Flesh, by Khanh Ha  -- Annam (Vietnam) early 20th century
  • The Neruda Case, by Roberto Ampuero -- 1970s Chile, Cuba, East Germany
  • Painter of Silence, by Georgina Harding -- 1940s/1950s Romania 

crime fiction

 odd/weird fiction

  •  The Mark Inside, by Amy Reading
  • Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady -- not yet reviewed 
  • Skios, by Michael Frayn -- read, not yet reviewed  (but I liked it)

other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. We all liked it, and had a great time debating who had been pregnant and who was the father.We discussed it over tea and scones. I'm currently putting together the next list of reads for when we come back from our summer hiatus. Suggestions would definitely be helpful!

 2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:
Ride a Cockhorse, by Raymond Kennedy
The Madman of Bergerac, by Georges Simenon
In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes

Summer Resort, by Esther Kinsky (Germany)
Part of the Solution, by Ulrich Peltzer (Germany)

 3) Books bought this month:
Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey  (Africa)
The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul (Scandinavia)
Kapitoil, by Teddy Wayne
Black Skies, by Arnaldur Indridason (Scandinavia)
Afterlives of the Saints,  by Colin Dickey
The Coward's Tale, by Vanessa Gebbie

4) Currently reading: 
Black Skies, by Arnaldur Indridason

so that's all...I'm off to go start my Saturday!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

the book club show -- PBS

Want to be on TV? PBS is planning a show called "The Book Club Show", and you or each member of your book group can apply to audition to be on television.  It's being billed as "a show for people who LOVE BOOKS and want to talk about them." 

You can find the details here.  If this gets picked up by our local pbs stations, I'll definitely be watching!! 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Neruda Case, by Roberto Ampuero

Riverhead, Books 2012
originally published as El Caso Neruda, 2008
translated by Carolina de Robertis
352 pp
ARC -- via LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program and Riverhead Books -- thanks!!

Had I done my homework, as I usually do when I come across a new author, I would have learned that Roberto Ampuero is the author of an entire series featuring  detective Cayetano Brulé.  Beginning in 1993 with ¿Quién mató a Cristián Kustermann? (Who Killed Christian Kustermann?) Brulé has been involved in several cases; The Neruda Case is the latest to be written but it seems to be a prequel that explains how Brulé got his start in the detective biz.  To be brutally honest, as I sat down to read this book, I was concerned that having Pablo Neruda as a character in a detective novel might be a cheap ploy.  Although the main character spends a lot of time and energy traveling around and pursuing answers on Neruda[s behalf,  the  book turns out to be an homage of sorts to the Nobel-winning poet rather than your standard detective novel.  It's also a commentary on the betrayal and death of ideals.

The author notes that as a boy he lived near Neruda's home La Sebastiana in Valparaíso, where

"on three separate occasions, I went to La Sebastiana, in my school uniform and carrying my briefcase full of notebooks, and stood at the door to the poet's garden..." All I wanted to do was to talk to the poet. But all three times I was petrified...not daring to knock and ask to enter the realm where Neruda dwelt with his secrets."

Now, Ampuero’s Cayetano Brulé has the honor of entering that house, where the author’s “boyhood shyness” kept him from doing the same.

Sitting in the Cafe del Poeta in Valparaiso one day in 1990, Cayetano Brulé sees a photo of Pablo Neruda on the back of his menu and flashes back to his very first case back in the 70s, “the most closely guarded secret of his life,” that began at party his wife Ángela had made him attend at the home of the city’s mayor.  Not feeling like mingling with the bigwigs, Brulé hides out in the library. His peace is shattered when another man walks into the room and they  begin talking.    It is only when  Ángela comes in to tell the stranger that he’s wanted at the party that Cayetano realizes he’s been spending time with Pablo Neruda, who invites him to his home at La Sebastiana.  It isn’t long until Brulé is welcomed into Neruda’s home that the poet gets to the point of the invitation: he is dying of cancer,  he’s seeking an oncologist, Dr. Ángel Bracamonte, and he wants Cayetano to do some detective work to locate him.  After a trip to Mexico city that produces more questions than answers, Neruda explains the real reason behind his search: it seems that Bracamonte’s wife, Beatriz, was once one of the poet’s many lovers; he needs to know  if the daughter she gave birth to is his.  Time is running out -- and Neruda, plagued by his memories of all the women he's betrayed in the name of poetry,  wants to know for sure before the end comes.  Cayetano’s search will take him from Mexico to Cuba, to East Germany and Bolivia where he realizes that the utopian ideals promised by  revolution  have all but collapsed and have become something else entirely.  It will also place him in the company of some well-known figures of the times, including Neruda’s friend Salvador Allende, whose tenure as  president of Chile is on its last legs.

If you want to look at this book simply as the series prequel that explains how Cayetano Brulé first got into the private eye business, there are a couple of  entertaining  moments: Neruda’s advice to Brulé about using the novels of Georges Simenon as a guide to becoming a detective, his “Maigret del Caribe,”   Brulé’s narrow escape from East Germany, and a few other scenes featuring the hapless newbie detective.  But of greater interest to me was the political backdrop against which this book is set, during the last gasps of the Allende government prior to the US-backed coup that placed Pinochet in power.   And aside from the sillier moments where Brulé is initiated into the detective trade, there is a much more serious exploration of different idealistic visions that got lost somewhere along the way.

Very much recommended, especially if you are interested in Latin American history or revolutionary history in general. I hope this book does well; perhaps it will create some interest in translating Ampuero's other novels into English.

Painter of Silence, by Georgina Harding

Bloomsbury, 2012 (UK)
312 pp

Historical fiction is one of my favorite reading genres when it's done well. I like more serious novels -- by that I mean I tend to shy away from historical fiction along the lines of The Other Boleyn Girl, which I read when it first came out and found a bit too soap operaish for my taste. Feel free to disagree, and I don't mean to belittle anyone's reading tastes (and how can I, when I absolutely squeal with delight reading books about squid gods) but for me that kind of stuff is more along the lines of historical chick-lit rather  than well-written historical fiction.  So in scouring my shelves I came up with Painter of Silence, a novel that turned out to be quite good and one that is told from a rather unique perspective.  It was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year.

As Painter of Silence opens, a young man makes his way to a hospital in the city of Iasi, in Moldavia (Romania) where he collapses on the stairs outside of the building.  He is found, brought in and brought back from the edge of death.  Adriana, the nurse who takes a special interest in him,  tries to find out who he is and where he may be from, but can elicit no information, finally realizing that he's probably deaf and most likely mute. She decides to call him by the name of her son, who went to fight in the war and never returned.  Another nurse, Safta offers to help; she doesn't tell anyone, but she recognizes the man as Augustin, nicknamed Tinu,  her childhood companion and son of her privileged family's former cook. She doesn't know it, but Augustin has struggled to make his way to Iasi to deliver a special message to her.   After he is released  from the hospital and stays briefly with Adriana, he and Safta embark on a journey back to their childhood home, where he begins to tell her his story and deliver her message in the only way he knows how -- through  drawings done from his incredible memory that try to express what he's been through since he last saw her.  As his story is slowly revealed, Augustin's pictures reflect the war's horrors and express the changes as the new Stalinist regime clears out the existing social order and  imposes a new one.  Tinu is not only a witness to  events of this time period;  he also experiences some of them firsthand.   Safta's story is also revealed as the novel alternates between the present and the past.

Sometimes historical fiction authors feel like they have to include a lot of details, sensationalistic scenes of atrocities, or bloody battles that often hold the story down, but not here.  Instead, the novel moves at a slow and gentle pace, condensing  this timewise-small but critical period of Romania's upheaval into a very readable and potent narrative.  Augustin's experiences, his observations  and his incredible memory carry the historical events without the need for extraneous additions.   The author effectively establishes a running  theme of separation/disconnection/isolation throughout the novel:  as Safta notes, disconnecting is what "she and everyone else is meant to be doing these days" under this new order.   Parents are separated from their children;  the fear that pervades this new society detaches previously morally-sound people from who they used to be and their principles and leaves them afraid to speak.  Present is separated from past.  A refugee mentally and physically separates herself from the people who have taken her in.  "Pieces of one's mind"  separate, then come back together in "unexpected ways."  And then of course there's Tinu, who's always stood apart because of his inability to speak or hear.  

Painter of Silence started out a bit slow in getting my full attention, but it eventually started to hook me as I continued to read and got used to the pace and the writing style.  It's very reader friendly and accessible, not bogged down in useless detail, and  a good  novel of historical fiction that is related  from a different perspective than I've experienced before. While the main character, Tinu, is drawn well, there is also a lot of strength in some the minor characters -- the brief scenes with Liviu and Irina Milescu, for example, who live in Adriana's building, offer a realistic look at ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  The book tends to raise some interesting questions about the nature of  language but I'll leave that topic  for more critically-oriented people than myself.    What I didn't really like so much was the ending -- I get that the author has left things on a note of hope, but it was a bit unrealistic,  seemed contrived and sort of threw a damper on my overall enjoyment of the novel.   But I can still definitely recommend the book.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Flesh, by Khanh Ha

Black Heron Press, 2012
366 pp

Beheadings are the bookends of this historical fiction novel set in Annam (modern-day Vietnam) just around the turn of the century.  It is the first of these acts in 1896  that introduces the main character Tài as he and his family attend his father's execution.  By the time he witnesses the second, 16 year-old Tài has had to absorb more than most boys his age, and has had to grow up quickly.  The tale is related through the eyes of an older Tài, now in his late 70s. Along with plenty of adventure, love and revenge, Flesh is the story of how a boy's loyalty and obligations to his family lead him out of the small confines of his village into a bigger world where he discovers that things are not always as they seem on the surface, and that happiness and betrayal are often two sides of the same coin. 

The story begins with the execution of his father in 1896 that sends Tài on a pursuit to find and retrieve his father's head for a proper burial, and to also to discover the name of his father's betrayer.  His younger brother dies when smallpox sweeps through the family village, and Tài narrowly escapes the same fate.  Now feeling responsible for taking care of his mother, he would like to find a way to provide a proper burial spot for his brother and father. As fate would have it, on Tài's journey he meets a geomancer who is seeking out the perfect burial location for a wealthy client in Hanoi.  Tài is indentured to the geomancer, who then sells Tài's two-year contract to his client, Cao Lai.   He meets and falls in love with a beautiful, young Chinese girl, also indentured to a wealthy businessman in Hanoi.  Although Tài's violent streak gets him into some trouble, with his love for Xiaoli and patient support  from Cao Lai,  he finally believes that he's getting his life sorted out and under control, and Tai is happier than he's ever been.  But Tài's hopes and happiness begin to unravel as he learns some devastating truths that send him into an emotional tailspin,  leading him to question everything he thinks he knows.

Reading this book is sometimes like flipping through a stack of postcards of old Annam. Ha fills his novel with  beautiful surroundings, sights, sounds and even smells, inviting  his readers to take a step back to another time and another place.   Whether he's talking about the beautiful Annamese countryside, the river's sometimes treacherous waters with the water buffalo grazing along the shores,  the narrow alleys of Hanoi or its crowded opium dens,  you forget where you are in the present as you're transported back in time.   He also hits on things that never seem to change -- the differences between rich and poor, crime, religious differences, love and the desire for revenge.

Khanh Ha did well for a first novel, especially in terms of setting and themes.  At the same time, the story tended to meander here and there and it might have been much tighter, offering much more of an emotional  punch, had it been scaled back a bit more during the editing process.  I'm also left thinking about the target audience for this book -- around its sense of place and authentic time feel, considering the subject matter and Tài's coming of age,  it may be best geared toward people  who read more sophisticated young adult novels, but I'd also recommend it to people who might be interested in that period of Vietnam's history.

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and to Black Heron Press for sending me this book.

The book continues to tour through July 23rd; you can follow its travels at the TLC website.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pao, by Kerry Young

Bloomsbury USA, 2011
280 pp

The lovely island of Jamaica is the setting for this novel which centers around Yang Pao, a Chinese immigrant who landed there in 1938 at the age of 14 with his family after escaping civil war in China.  Approximately fifty years elapse in this story, from Pao's arrival through the re-election of Prime Minister Michael Manley in 1989.  It's an interesting book in which Pao's  story plays out through all of the political, social and economic changes that occur in that 50-year period, taking the reader from the last decades of British colonialism through Jamaica's independence and its aftermath. 

The story actually starts in 1945, when Pao is visited by Gloria, a Jamaican woman who comes to  Pao in Kingston's Chinatown after her sister's been badly beaten by a white sailor.  Since the retirement of Zhang, the Yang family's friend, benefactor  and Chinatown's own local "Godfather" figure,  Pao has taken his place; Gloria comes to him to ask for justice for her sister  and future protection of the prostitutes living and working in her house. It isn't long before Pao becomes smitten with Gloria, but is advised by his friend that she's not the right kind of woman for marrying.   He sets his sights higher, and they land on Fay Wong, daughter of Henry, one of the richest Chinese men on the island, and the two eventually marry and have children.  This move up the social and business ladder is great for Pao at first, but things aren't destined to work out as he planned: Fay can't stand the Pao family home in Chinatown, Gloria's not too happy, and as time goes on, outside forces begin to  take their toll on Pao, his family and even the traditional ways that exist within Pao's Chinatown.   In and around Pao's story the author examines the immigrant experience, Jamaica's  hope for unity once its people gained their independence from the British,  the political conflict that overtakes progress, and the growing awareness of Jamaicans that while their former masters may be gone,  the people are still under outside control in various ways. 

At its heart, Pao is a story about a powerful man who ultimately comes to discover things about himself and the people around him among the political, economic and social turmoil that overtakes Jamaica.  Pao is a complex character: he uses SunZi's Art of War as a guide for decision making and for strategy in dealing with others and is well respected within Chinatown, but at the same time, he can be brutal; he rapes his wife, punches her in the mouth and deals quickly with anyone who may pose a threat to his Chinatown.   While Pao's story is certainly the centerpiece of the book, more interesting (to me, anyway) is what's going on around him on the island in terms of the political, economic and social spheres post colonization, where the author raises some very interesting questions that are pertinent to life in any former colony.

Overall, I liked this book, even though family drama just isn't my favorite reading thing.   I would caution potential readers that the book is written using some kind of Jamaican patois so that if you're not up for a story written in other than the King's English, this may be a bit of a challenge.  But if you stick with it, the novel gets lifted out of the ordinary by the author's placement of the action in several different political eras, giving you a bit of a feel for the resultant chaos and how it affected life for people regardless of their socio-economic status.  Its focus on Chinese immigrants to Jamaica brings something new to my reading table regarding immigrant literature,  and while the Caribbean diaspora has been a topic found in many other books, the author deals with this part of Jamaica's history so that you can really understand the reasons people left their home and hoped for the best somewhere else. I'd recommend it for those reasons, although I'm sure the family saga will be much more of a draw.  Either way, it's definitely a good read.

fiction from the UK

** If you want this book, I'm not keeping it -- just be the first to comment that you'd like it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

today's listing of I'm not going to read these books - does anyone want them (US only, please)

Up first is The Book of Jonas, by Stephen Dau.  I have two copies, since in their infinite respective wisdoms, Powells Indiespensable and the Book Passage first editions book clubs each sent me the same book the same month.  So I have an extra.

 Here's the blurb for The Book of Jonas:

Jonas is fifteen when his family is killed during an errant U.S. military operation in an unnamed Muslim country. With the help of an international relief organization, he is sent to America, where he struggles to assimilate-foster family, school, a first love. Eventually, he tells a court-mandated counselor and therapist about a U.S. soldier, Christopher Henderson, responsible for saving his life on the tragic night in question. Christopher's mother, Rose, has dedicated her life to finding out what really happened to her son, who disappeared after the raid in which Jonas' village was destroyed. When Jonas meets Rose, a shocking and painful secret gradually surfaces from the past, and builds to a shattering conclusion that haunts long after the final page. Told in spare, evocative prose, The Book of Jonas is about memory, about the terrible choices made during war, and about what happens when foreign disaster appears at our own doorstep. It is a rare and virtuosic novel from an exciting new writer to watch.

Second is Michael David Lukas' book, The Oracle of Stamboul , again a duplicate copy.

Both books are free, and they're new -- never read. You can take one or both, I do not care.  Just be the first to leave a comment saying which book you want (or if you want both) and they're yours.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I'm not going to read this book -- does anyone want it?

The title of the book is The Listeners, by Leni Zumas. It's autographed, from Powell's Indiespensable collection, and I'm not going to read it. Not my thing, but it might be yours. First comment with contact info takes it.

It didn't come with a dustjacket (it's a special hardcover edition) and I've never read's brand spankin' new. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd

Harper, 2012
originally published in the UK, Bloomsbury, 2012
353 pp
Hardcover ed.

"Everything is unbelievably complicated.  Everything."

Lysander Rief arrives in Vienna in 1913 to receive psychological help for a sexual problem.  His closest friend in England had convinced him to try psychoanalysis; taking his advice, Lysander took out all of his savings and moved to Austria.  At his first session with Dr. Bensimon, he is advised to keep a journal, which Lysander calls his "Autobiographical Investigations," which Bensimon says will hopefully yield a direct insight into Lysander's unconscious mind during the course of his treatment.  Lysander's first entry details the event at age 14 that led simultaneously to his burden of guilt and his sexual issue.  Bensimon believes the answer is to be found in his theory of "parallelism," scoffed at by Freud,  which is  "basically about using your imagination."   The idea is this:

"If the everyday world, everyday reality, is a fiction we create then the same can be said of our past -- the past is an aggregate of fictive realities we have already experienced -- our memories."
Bensimon's job, as he sees it, is to try to change "those old fictions" Lysander's been living with.  The doctor's brief use of hypnotic therapy plants an altogether-different version of that traumatic day in  a "parallel world" within Lysander's subconscious that Lysander can develop in place of the real one.  This technique aligns with Lysander's profession as an actor, where he is both himself and not himself, where he is always performing, and where it's "just an act, after all..., his métier, his talent, his calling."  But as Lysander is about to discover, he's not the only one who is an actor.  And so begins this tale of deceptions, of shifting identities in a world of duplicity and performance in some fashion or another.  It's a book where efforts to discern what is real and not real and who to trust follow on the heels of the fictions created by Boyd's characters, and really, what better venue can there be for such ideas than a spy story? 

The story moves from Lysander's psychological treatment to his infatuation with another one of Bensimon's patients, Hettie.  She is a sculptor, living a rather bohemian life with her artist-significant other Udo.  Hettie and Lysander enjoy a torrid affair, but out of nowhere, Hettie accuses him of rape; he is placed under arrest and "escapes" with help from fellow countrymen at the British Embassy, leaving him in a lot of debt.  Leaving  Vienna and returning to England, he joins the army as World War I erupts, but his days in Vienna come back to haunt him when he is called upon to perform some secret-agent type work that will take him across enemy lines into Switzerland.  Once home in England again,  he must penetrate the  closed-ranks bureaucracy within the military war machine  to root out who is leaking secrets to the enemy, but some bizarre and unforeseen complications arise along the way.   Lysander notes in his journal at one point that his " life seems to be running on a track I have nothing to do with,” -- he feels like a  "passenger on a train" with no idea of where he's going and the route he's taking.   He makes several references to waiting for sunrise, when "he might know what to do next," or when he has hopes that its arrival will bring  understanding and clarity or "at least clearer vision,"  but the actor who once loved the limelight  learns that it may be safer to remain in the world of shadows. 

Obviously there's much more to talking about this book than space will allow.  I liked this novel immensely.  This book has so many positives, including Boyd's awesome portrayal of a world in flux, a world that was "spinning, faster than ever ...," with time "on the move in this modern world" where the old was "going fast, disappearing and something different, something new, was inevitably taking its place." In 1913 Vienna Boyd's sense of place and time captures the atmosphere of this city on the cusp of an uneasy modernity, and reflect the same in wartime England and on the battlefields of France. There's a fair amount of wry humor that runs throughout, and the character of Lysander's gay uncle  and his African lover brought out the occasional chuckle.  On the down side, readers might be put off by the sometimes-meandering action or the pointless sidelines, for example, with Lysander's off-again, on-again relationship with his girlfriend Blanche.  And if you're looking for a straight-up, full-on novel of high espionage, this really isn't it -- this is much more of a character-driven story than a tale of adventure.

So maybe this isn't the best book William Boyd's ever written, but it's still damn good,  and it will capture your imagination for a few hours as you're transported back in time.  I don't think you can ask for much more than that.

Highly recommended.

Monday, June 11, 2012

book picks for down the road

the road near my house, leading to the beach

Every Sunday I sit with my New York Times Book Review and try to find books I might want to read. Drinking strong black coffee, listening to XM radio's real jazz station,  reading the NYT Book Review and finishing the NYT Sunday crossword are all parts of a ritual I go through each week.  I know -- sounds dull, and well, it probably is for most people, but whatever. I like it.

Anyway, this week a book called People Who Eat Darkness, written by Richard Lloyd Parry, caught my eye.  It's a kind of true-crime sort of thing, which normally I don't read unless the crime is historical in nature. When I saw the article I realized that I had seen a show some time ago called "Crimes that Shook the World" that profiled this case.  I remember when I watched that show I was appalled at how the Japanese police handled this case and frankly what idiots they seemed to be at the time.  Susan Chira, the author of the review of this book, notes that

"...Richard Lloyd Parry's remarkable examination of that crime, what it revealed about Japanese society and how it unsettled conventional notions of bereavement, elevates his book far above the genre."

Cool. It doesn't sound like your standard sensational, titillating-details type of true crime. It's mine.

Another one I saw in "Editors' Choice" is A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Johnson.  That little blurb says the following:

"Freedom and dislocation are this novel's themes; its narrators are a woman who has brought her bicycle to Central Asia in 1923 and a researcher in present-day London."

I'm hoping this one isn't going to turn out to be some schlocky chick-litish sort of thing that I'm going to regret, but if it does, I'll give it away to someone who may appreciate it.


Of the books actually reviewed this week, I've read only one: The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness, which I recommend to readers who like historical fiction. It's set at the end of the Ceaucescu regime in Romania and it's really good.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

On the Proper Use of Stars, by Dominique Fortier

originally published as Du bon usage des etoiles, 2008
translated by Sheila Fischman
269 pp
hardcover - Canada
(and Ancient Forest Friendly!)

 "Perlerorneq. That is the word the Esquimaux use for the feeling that eats away at the hearts of men during the winter that stretches out endlessly, when the sun seldom appears. Perlerorneq. Hoarse as the lament of an animal that senses the approach of death."

Captain John Franklin's final mission of 1845 sets the frame for this novel, as he sets sail to navigate the two ships  Erebus and Terror through  unexplored stretches of the Northwest Passage.  However, On the Proper Use of Stars  is not just another account of that expedition; instead, it is a very cleverly-constructed novel that moves back and forth between the Arctic and Victorian London, focusing on the lives of the men stuck in the ice while life goes on with Franklin's wife Jane and her niece Sophia back at home.  The story is punctuated throughout with various documents from both fronts: pieces of plays, menus, science books , fictional diary excerpts and other fragments of historical texts that help to simultaneously contrast and bring together the two alternating strands depicting these respective worlds. 

Despite some ominously-depicted foreshadowings of doom at the beginning of the novel, at first  morale seems to be very high about the Erebus and the Terror.  Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror, notes that aboard the Erebus, "laughter can be heard from morning to night."  Food is plentiful, good progress is being made, and even when the long winter night sets in, the men put on plays, have intellectual discussions  and set up classes.  Franklin, in the meantime, writes in his journal, which he will leave to his wife for adding the "finishing touches," to make his account of the expedition "worthy of the events."  But there are some issues: Franklin and Crozier do not see eye to eye --  Franklin, who enjoys contemporary recognition as a hero, treats Crozier with scorn when he makes suggestions that embody "plain common sense," such as leaving behind the message cylinders as per orders of the Admiralty.  Crozier does what he's told but questions Franklin's leadership.   Meanwhile, back in London, Lady Jane Franklin with her sister, niece and stepdaughter set off for their own explorations -- first in France, then off to Portugal, Madeira, the West Indies and then the United States, carefully documenting every bit of information about the world she's exploring; while at home, she not only has a busy social life, but spends a great deal of time examining maps of the Arctic, charting various explorers' routes with different colors.  

The rest of the novel continues in the same manner, contrasting the two separate worlds of London and the Arctic, reflecting  life in both settings and how each group attempts to stave off their respective anxieties as it becomes apparent that there is little hope of a return to England.  Crozier dreams of becoming a hero so that on his return he can court and marry Sophia, for whom he had once drawn her initial in a field of Tasmanian stars;  Sophia, on the other hand, spends her days attending house parties or other events to escape her boredom, and wonders if she should even marry at all, hardly even remembering Crozier.   Lady Jane Franklin, who was ridiculed by other wives while with her husband in Tasmania, now finds that she is quite popular with the same women now that Sir John is leading the expedition. She  refuses most invitations, but makes sure her weekly soireés show off the wonders she's discovered in her own travels.    Her own worries about the failure of the expedition to return fall on deaf ears as Franklin's contemporaries, namely Barrow, Parry, and Ross are certain that "the man who ate his boots" is in no danger, and that "one does not set out to rescue heroes."  But unwilling to give up, and refusing to let them "get rid of her like that," she exhausts herself looking for help. Her despondency turns into "will, animated first by anger, which grows from day to day and is gradually being steeped in a muted hatred."   While Sophia is busy with the day's appointment schedule, Crozier, getting ready to leave the ship with two dinghies in hopes of rescue for what's left of the ships' companies,  is examining the objects that the remaining men have brought out onto the ice -- the "household trinkets" that are "all of England that they will pull behind them, the weight of their country, even if it should lead them directly to their death."

Beyond the two very different worlds, Fortier also includes the Arctic natives, the "Esquimaux," who come across the trapped ships, greeted as a welcome sight by the crew. These "savages" wondered whether the ships had been made their way across the ice or if they'd come from the sky. The Esquimaux were also convinced to come aboard and to take a look inside the ships, and do so expressing a great deal of wonder and surprise.  This action follows the script of a play that was staged by the crew, "Journey to the Moon," which underscores a visit to the moon where the customs, society and differences between cultures dumbfound the traveler.  And while they are referred to as  "savages who live like animals" and are seen as uncivilized among some of the officers, it doesn't take long for Crozier to realize that the Esquimaux likely have the upper hand by taking advantage of the "meager resources offered by this environment."

On the Proper Use of Stars is very different, but very well written. It reveals a unique way of fictionally presenting a well-known moment in history without having to resort to lengthy exposition or  unnecessary dialogue to bring the reader back to that point in time.   The construction and ongoing juxtaposition of the two different worlds that these people inhabit never allows the story to become dull or boring.  The same is true for the characterization as well as the vividly-evoked Arctic settings that start out beautiful and soon lapse into dreadful monotony. 

Not everyone will like this book, especially those who prefer a traditional narrative style, and those who like a lot of action in their historical fiction. But if you are up for something new,  you might want to give this one a try.  The story is familiar yet becomes something entirely different at the same time.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Yay! Shehan Karunatilaka wins the Commonweath book prize!!!

Shehan Karunatilaka has won the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize for his excellent novel Chinaman: the Legend of Pradeep Mathew.  I read this book way back at the beginning of this year and absolutely loved it - it's currently living on this year's favorite book shelf. 

Not that he'll see this, but Congratulations!!!!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

totally OT, sort of : Requiescat in pace, Ray Bradbury

I just read in the New York Times that Ray Bradbury died today at the age of 91.  I can't think of anyone who isn't at least familiar with some of his works: The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, or The Illustrated Man, to name a few. His excellent Martian Chronicles was the book that started me reading science fiction many years ago; and I know that he was a huge influence on many authors in the genre.

 To someone who provided me with hours of thought-provoking reading, rest in peace.

Friday, June 1, 2012

June: historical fiction

I'm not even going to speculate on the possibilities for my reading this month because I probably have more historically-based fiction than anything else in my library, well wait -- that's if you don't count the crime fiction.  There are crossovers -- literary historical fiction, historical crime fiction, yada yada yada; but to me if it's set in the past, it's a work of historical fiction.  Should be a good month.