Wednesday, January 30, 2013

January reading roundup; the monthly "my books need new homes" plea

Well, the first month of the new year has almost come to a close, and so has my reading for the month.  There are a couple of irons still in the fire so to speak, but they won't be finished until February.  January has been a great month where reading is concerned with the selections from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, even considering that I didn't get my physical copy of the book from the UK until just a few days ago.  There are so many great books listed in there that I'll continue to use it as a guide.  I discovered a preference for shorter novels, deciding that while they may not be lengthy, they tend to pack a bigger punch in most cases.   I fell in love with horror writer Laird Barron this month, and read a most enlightening account of the end of the aristocracy/nobility as a class in Russia, prompting me to start laying in a supply of other approachable books of Russian/Soviet history.  Geek doesn't even begin to describe me when it comes to history.

So, let's just see how things shook out this month:

from 1001 books you must read:
They Shoot Horses, Don't They, by Horace McCoy  (US)
The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Latin America)
Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (US)
Fateless, by Imre Kertesz (Hungary)
Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming (UK by way of Jamaica)
the crime fiction
A Grain of Truth, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland)
Brenner and God, by Wolf Haas (Austria)

odd/weird fiction
Occultation and Other Stories, by Laird Barron 


And now, the  other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and I have to say that coming back to it six years later was an eye opener.  I save most of my books and when I get the opportunity, sometimes I reread them, and I'm always surprised at how I've grown as a reader in the meantime.  With the exception of one of the group who hated me all the way through for choosing it, the group had an incredibly lively discussion that went in several directions aside from the obvious.  Next month is The Light Between Oceans.

 2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month (as usual, a lot of obscure titles):
     crime fiction:
The Criminal, by Jim Thompson
The Blonde on the Street Corner, by David Goodis
The Moon in the Gutter, by David Goodis

     general fiction:
Testing the Current, by William McPherson
Faithful Ruslan, by Georgi Vladimov -- which reminds me...I started a subscription via Melville House for their novella series --
Messiah, by Gore Vidal
The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood

Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge
Crime Fiction (The New Critical Idiom), by  John Scaggs

    weird fiction:
Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan, Vol. I, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Noctuary, by Thomas Ligotti
The Shadowy Thing, by H.B. Drake
The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales, by Mark Samuels
A Season in Carcosa, by Robin Spriggs
 3) Books bought this month (also filled with obscure titles, I'm sure!)
Detective Story, by Imre Kertesz
Fiasco, by Imre Kertesz
Kaddish for an Unborn Child, by Imre Kertesz
The Book about Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist
The Trick is to Keep Breathing, by Janice Galloway
Cocaine Nights, by JG Ballard
The Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri (preorder, out Feb. 26)
The Golden Calf, by Helene Tursten (preorder, out Feb. 5)

4) Currently reading: 
Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa

****5) Books I'm giving away this month -- take one, some or all, I don't care. I want to send them to good homes.   (sorry, to US readers only)   -- Unlike many other things in life, for you, these are absolutely 100% totally free;  I'll even pay postage to whoever will give them a home. Come on, you're doing me a HUGE favor!

1. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
2.  The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman
3.  The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman
4.  The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler
5.  The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam
6. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
This isn't a contest -- it's first come, first served.  If you want any or all of these books, be the first to leave a comment with the title(s) you want.  If someone's already claimed what you want, check back next month for another round!

c'est tout... á bientôt

Sunday, January 27, 2013

*Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

Penguin, 2002
181 pp
 originally published 1953


[p. 483 - 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die]

"Be faithful, spy well, or you die."

Weighing in at only 181 pages, Casino Royale is the first installment of the 14-book James Bond series.   The Bond of this novel will probably come across as a bit of a surprise to some readers who are familiar with his larger-than-life, superspy cinema persona, which oozes sexiness, indestructibility, confidence, and machismo. Here he comes across as more of a misogynistic, flawed individual, prone to self doubt and a bit of introspection at times. In short, he tends to be  more human than the often over-the-top movie portrayals lead us to believe.

Casino Royale begins rather slowly, with Bond on assignment to take down Monsieur Le Chiffre, a man with adopted name whose aliases include "variations on the words 'cypher' or 'number'." He is a Soviet agent (remember -- this was written in 1953 and the Cold War is already on fire) entrusted with fifty million francs to finance a Communist-controlled trade union in France, a group which could prove troublesome as a "fifth column" in case of war with the USSR.  Le Chiffre, it seems, has parlayed the trade union funds into several incredibly bad investments and is currently on the edge of financial disaster.  Bond's masters believe the only way to bring him down and destroy his standing with the Soviets is to bankrupt him entirely; but to do this they need someone who can outdo him at cards -- it seems that the enigmatic Monsieur Le Chiffre has come up short and is using his skills at  baccarat to try to make up his losses.  Bond is the perfect man for the job; he goes to the casino at Royale-Les-Eaux to watch Le Chiffre and then take him on at cards.  One serious complication has arisen: agents from SMERSH, an acronym for Smyert Shpionam, "death to spies," have caught wind of Le Chiffre's activities and are on his tail, unbeknownst to Le Chiffre.  Bond's going to need some help -- along with Mathis, a French intelligence agent, and Felix Leiter of the CIA, London sends Vesper Lynd, a sultry, sexy woman whose involvement is at first resented by Bond.  This is not going to be easy -- it isn't long until there's an assassination attempt, and that's only the beginning of Bond's problems.

I must say I was a bit surprised to find a more human, fallible Bond characterized here, one whose take on women is that
"women are for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around."
This Bond also is capable of questioning the rightness of what he does, capable of reflection in a world where "the villains and heroes get all mixed up." As he notes,
"...the country-right-or wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. Today we are fighting Communism. Okay.  If I'd been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts."
At the same time, this Bond becomes the sum of his experience -- I won't say why or how, but he evolves from a man who loses himself in love into a hardhearted, cold, licensed to kill 007 with a single-minded mission, to "go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy."

The events in Casino Royale set the foundation for Bond's long career and if you're looking for something lighter, it's  actually quite a good read.  It starts rather slow, but picks up quickly.  In today's vast array of high-tech spy fiction, this novel may seem a bit old fashioned with little action, but more interesting here is Bond's character.  I'll also mention that a large number of reviewers were somewhat disgusted with Bond's attitudes toward women and the very apparent sexism that runs throughout the book, but hold on.  This book was published in 1953, not 2013; it's highly unfair to judge the mores (read mor-ays) of a particular time or of the writer and hold them to today's standards.  IMHO (which is indeed humble), giving a book a 1 or 2 star rating on the basis of its treatment of women some 60 years ago is just wrong.

 The whole time I was reading this book, I was amazed at how this short little novel morphed into the action-packed thriller it became in 2006.  If you're a spy fiction person, like I am, it's a definite no-miss; if you've seen the movies and want to know how it all started, this is a great resource.

Friday, January 25, 2013

*Fateless, by Imre Kertesz

Hydra Books, Northwestern University Press, 1992
originally published as Sorstalanság, 1975
translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
191 pp


"...even the imagination is not completely unbounded, or at least is unbounded only within limits, I have found." 

Fateless is a novel of the Holocaust related from the point of view of a teenaged Hungarian Jewish boy, Georg Koves.   It is very unique among other stories set during this period, as it provides a different approach to contemplating not only the ongoing horror of the Holocaust, but also the concepts of survival, freedom, and fate. While there is tragedy all around Georg, and while he himself is caught up in the Holocaust whirlwind, it is not necessarily  portrayed to the degree of most other novels dealing with this time --  the story is presented in a rather low-key, subdued tone. But don't let that fool you.  It is this very tone that gives Fateless its brilliance and its true emotional power, allowing  for moments of dark  humor and a great deal of irony. The book is minus most of the the vivid depictions of horror and of the brutality of experience that many other writers of the Holocaust have penned; one of the things Georg ultimately learns is that sometimes individual experiences simply defy description, words, or comparison.

 The main character is Georg Koves, an average, middle-class 14 year-old boy living in Budapest, who spends little if any time pondering what is happening around him.  As things get tougher for the Jews there he observes, takes stock of things around him; he can even sometimes rationally accept why some people dislike Jews. As a typical teen, he doesn't think too much about being Jewish; he speaks no Hebrew and can't even recite prayers with his uncle the day before his father is to report to a mandatory labor camp. Georg also finds himself conscripted to work at the Shell Oil Refinery works, affording him official papers that allowed him limited permission to leave the city limits. One day George is summoned off the bus he takes to work; he complies thinking that it's a check of his papers. He is surprised to see other boys he works with who are already there for the same reason. Instead of a sense of worry or fear, they seem to take this situation in their respective strides, with one of the boys even having a laugh at George as he had "had now become one of them." Even as the number of people grows throughout the day, George doesn't see a problem, since he has the correct papers; the boys play games and watch the people who join them as a result of repeated sweeps.  By noon, George feels  "hot, bored and...getting sleepy," all typical reactions to this strange situation if you're a teen.   It isn't long before the group is taken away; the following day they are at the  Budakalász brick factory, the last stop for Georg before Auschwitz (where he survives the selection process which he "naturally" understands, thinking it's normal to have strong people for work details). Here he feels like a "guest in captivity," not seeming to fully comprehend what's happening, and little by little adapts to his situation as if things were more or less taking their natural course.  As things slowly begin to dawn on Georg, as he realizes that Auschwitz is not something new but has been there for years, he remembers a day he went to register for high school where the headmaster was
 "quoting an ancient philosopher at the close of the speech: 'Non scolae sed vitae discimus'; We learn not for school but for life.' But I think that we should have been studying about Auschwitz all along, if they had tried to explain everything openly, honestly, intelligently. During the four years at school I did not hear a single word about this place. Still, of course, I realized that it would have been embarrassing, and I guess it really wasn’t part of our general education."
Georg is moved three days later to Buchenwald,  then onto Zeitz, a Buchenwald satellite camp.

Fateless concentrates directly on Georg's experience. Throughout his time in the camps, he uses expressions such as  "naturally", "in my case, at least" or "for me at any rate," to try to put his experience in a more logical and "natural" perspective.  At first our boy is naive, a situation which slowly changes as he begins to develop a deeper cynicism and somehow realizes that he must move "step by step" toward simply surviving. He is having a great deal of difficulty grasping what is going on and why things are  happening; conversely, the reader not only knows  what's happening but also realizes that all of the logic Georg can muster won't help him to make sense of anything, simply because the situation is one that makes no sense whatsoever.   This little bit of irony  is part and parcel of what makes this book so good and so worth reading.

Even on his return home, he refuses to acknowledge the hell he's just been through (having never experienced hell, so he says)  nor will he keep quiet about it, as an uncle tries to convince him needs to be done.  Instead he tries to make sense of it all in his own way:
"By the time one has passed a given step, put it behind one, the next one is already there. By the time one knows everything, one has already understood it all. And while one is coming to understand everything, a person does not remain idle: he is already attending to his new business, living, acting, moving, carrying out each new demand at each stage. Were it not for that sequencing in time, and were the entire knowledge to crash in upon a person on the spot, at one fell swoop, it might well be that neither one’s brain nor one’s heart would cope..."
Many readers find it offputting that Georg's experiences in the camps aren't elucidated in a more detailed and  more emotional style, but I think you have to ask yourself this question:  what is it exactly you are expecting  when you pick up a novel about the Holocaust? The narrative here takes you right into the daily life of the camps, including the tedium, the pain, the slow dehumanization, and on the flip side, even the small measures of happiness people could latch on to -- revealing that even in the ultimate state of inhumanity, it is one's soul, one's psyche, the human spirit, whatever you want to call it that survives and triumphs. The author's use of the present tense in spots also offers a more immediacy to the narrative; Georg's simple reasoning, along with his detached, often dispassionate voice conveys the real horror here.

I'll leave you to ponder the meaning of the title -- in a more recent translation published by Vintage (2004),  the title is offered as Fatelessness, which to me makes much more sense, implying an ongoing state. I'm not so sure that the author's conclusions on freedom and fate are ones with which I can wholeheartedly agree, but still, this book should be valued as a significant contribution to the core canon of Holocaust literature.

fiction from Hungary

Monday, January 21, 2013

serious rant ahead -- beware

Yet another Amazon seller story and I'm pissed.  Actually I could kick myself for not having noticed this earlier, so I share part of the blame here. 

The seller in question this time  is L.W. Currey, whose website  states that they are "Leading Specialists in Literary First Editions and Popular Fiction."   I just discovered today that they are also leading specialists in ripoffs as well. Here's the story.  Some time back, November 26th to be exact, I purchased a first-edition Arkham House book called Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People, a steal at $25 in collectible condition.   That same day I received a notice that the order had been cancelled because it was "out of stock:"

We're writing to inform you that your order from L. W. Currey has been canceled because the item you purchased is out of stock. Please return and place your order again at a later time. We're sorry for the inconvenience this has caused. In most cases, you pay for items when we ship them to you, so you won't be charged for items that are canceled.*

Order Details

Order #106-1503942-5522654

Placed on Monday, November 26, 2012
Sold by L. W. Currey
Cancel Reason: Out of Stock
fine...this happens a lot where people cancel orders so I didn't think anything about it.  Keep in mind, will you, that this book is extremely difficult to find.

Today, I'm going through every order on Amazon needing feedback, and I found this one, although obviously feedback wasn't required in this case.  So I'm thinking that I'll see what the current going price is for this one, and what do you know... L.W. Currey has the very same, exact edition I ordered at $25 for $65 (I know this because I keep copies of the orders and the details of said orders and the wording is exactly the same).  It's too late now to do anything or to say anything, and I'm kicking myself for not thinking about this sooner.

Granted, people have the right to set their prices the way they would like to, but in my head, if you offer a book at $25, and you make a sale, the price ought to be honored even if you can't see parting with it for that amount.  It's not my effin' problem if you put the wrong price in to begin with.  Instead, these people lied that it was out of stock and now the book I should have had for $25 is $65, a difference of $40!  Pisses me off!

okay. rant over. carry on.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

*Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

365 pp

[#722 on's list of 1001 books to read before you die]

"It was coming to him that perhaps all life as he knew it and vigorously practiced it was futile..."

Before launching into my thinking about this novel, I'll tell you something straight up: do not read it when you have the flu and you feel like you're dying.  I went to San Diego for a week of getting away from home, having fun and hanging with family, and brought home a particularly nasty case of the flu.  Normally when I read while I'm sick I tend to choose books I don't particularly have to think about -- this one demanded my participation, and I had a difficult time trying to give my full attention to it while my head was pounding and I was in and out of fever fog.  There's a lot of minutiae (for a reason) and a lot of long stretches where points are made and yet the scenes go on and on.  I was tempted to skim but pushed those thoughts aside thinking that there has to be a purpose to all of this. As it turns out, I'm happy I gave it as much attention as I could muster -- not only is it a fine novel, but there is more than a lot of relevance to our modern world to be found in Babbitt's America of the 1920s.

George F. Babbitt is a real estate agent in Zenith, a Midwestern city of of "towers of steel and cement and limestone"  where the population has grown to "practically 362,000."   While anyone visiting its business center would be hard pressed to distinguish it from other major cities, George finds every inch of it "individual and stirring."  He is married, has two children, and is above all wrapped up in his community standing. He belongs to a number of civic organizations, most prominently, the Zenith Boosters’ Club, where his like-minded, middle-class associates bow to the gods of business, money and progress and work to keep out any elements that they believe might possibly upset their collective and lucrative apple carts.

from the movie, via
 George  lives in a modern house with the latest technologies, belongs to a church, plays golf, and his opinions are shaped by the institutions and people with whom he associates and his political party.  Underneath his public persona, however,  he's starting to think that perhaps there's something missing, that he's not "entirely satisfied."   George has an ongoing and secret dream fantasy of a "fairy child" who will help him to escape to places  “more romantic than scarlet pagodas by a silver sea,” but the dreams are short lived; when daybreak comes it's back to more practical things.    One of his old college buds and  best friend, Paul Riesling, dreamed of becoming a concert violinist, but he too has jettisoned his dreams and has become a member of Zenith's middle-class business community. Unlike Babbitt, however, he is not afraid to confide his personal dissatisfaction:  he's bored,  his wife Zilla is a constant nag who makes him unhappy enough to have affairs,  and he has come to the realization that in the business world, "all we do is cut each other's throats and make the public pay for it."  Paul is the only one of Babbitt's associates that recognizes the need for responsibility -- something that Babbitt and his other cronies don't get.  When Paul's problems with Zilla come to a head and he literally can no longer take it, he snaps -- and his actions and their consequences send Babbitt into introspective mode where he comes to realize that his way of life has been "incredibly mechanical:"
 "Mechanical business -- a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion -- a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships -- back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness." 
prodding George into full-on rebellion.

I won't say any more -- the novel is an excellent piece of satire on conformity and middle-class culture, business or otherwise.  It is set in a time when unions, Socialism and any other form of organization among workers constituted a perceived threat to the American way of life; a time when the "American way of settling labor-troubles was for workmen to trust and love their employers."  As Lewis remarks on an organization called the Good Citizens' League, the members of this group believed that
 "the working-classes  must be kept in their place ... that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals and vocabulary." 
hmmm.... let's think about that for a moment, shall we? Democracy?

There is also a very purposeful delineation of class in this novel, and Lewis has a way of juxtaposing one against the other in well-crafted scenes.  The above-mentioned tedious minutiae which I wanted to end while my head was pounding also has a purpose that is not readily apparent, but which gains in importance over the course of the novel.   Obviously there's much more to it, and there are some hefty critiques and reviews to be found where perhaps more can be gleaned. 

It is rather difficult to read, I suspect, under the best of conditions, so if you are contemplating it as a choice from the 1001 books you must read, my advice is not to give up.  The book is constructed as a series of events and vignettes that eventually all come together in an ending which was not so predictable yet powerful,  at least for me.  Recommended -- but take your time with it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

*The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Picador, 2001
404 pp
originally published as La Fiesta del Chivo, 2000
translated by Edith Grossman

[#50 on the list of 1001 books you must read]
"... that’s what politics is, you make your way over corpses.”

I absolutely love works by Latin American writers.  My favorite novel of 2012 was Tomas Eloy Martinez's Purgatory2011 found Kamchatka  by Marcelo Figueras at the top spot.  Now here I am with Feast of the Goat by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, a story which takes place in the beautiful Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic, and one that is definitely going on the favorites list for 2013.

The tropical beauty of the Dominican Republic belies a dark period during the regime of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (r. 1930-61), called The Chief ("el jefe") or sometimes the "goat" in this novel, a man whose unchallenged control kept his military and government advisors in a complete stranglehold, leaving them in a state of veritable paralysis. It examines  "the spell that had kept so many Dominicans devoted, body and soul to Trujillo,"  for just over thirty years, and reveals how the structures put in place to maintain this paralyzing control didn't die off even with Trujillo’s assassination.  Not only does he control property, he controls people -- through strange tests of loyalty and other psychological measures that he employs. Everything people have -- property, wealth, position --  is theirs through the auspices of the "Benefactor;" a reality which has become so ingrained that no one dares do or say anything to screw it up. This relative peace and prosperity enjoyed by people in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo is countered with fast, brutal suppression of any form of dissidence; securing that peace cost untold thousands of innocent lives.  At the same time, in Mario Vargas Llosa's recounting, Trujillo's  control is under perceived attack: the US has placed a number of sanctions on the Dominican Republic, Catholic bishops are seen to be stirring up trouble and the situation is being monitored by American representatives there,  and if that isn't enough, Trujillo's own body is failing him

It is important to note that while The Feast of the Goat is based on actual events, it is not a blow-by-blow account of repackaged history,  but rather, as the author himself states in an interview with the New York Times,
''It's a novel, not a history book, so I took many, many liberties. The only limitation I imposed on myself was that I was not going to invent anything that couldn't have happened within the framework of life in the Dominican Republic. I have respected the basic facts, but I have changed and deformed many things in order to make the story more persuasive -- and I have not exaggerated.''
The author employs three narrative strands that weave through each other, or as he calls them, "trajectories," to tell his story. The first  is via the return of Urania Cabral, daughter of Agustin Cabral, once a powerful member of Trujillo's staff before his ultimate downfall.  After leaving for America at the age of 14 some 35 years earlier, Urania has finally returned to face the demons that drove her away;  in the meantime she has been spending her time studying law, taking a position with the World Bank, and reading everything she could get her hands on about the Trujillo regime. As she says to her father, to whom she hasn't spoken in all of those years,
"You're in some of those books, an important figure. Minister of Foreign Affairs, senator, president of the Dominican Party. Is there anything you weren't, Papa? I've become an expert on Trujillo. Instead of playing bridge or golf, or riding horses, or going to the opera, my hobby has been finding out what happened during those years."
"What happened" is at the core of Urania's  reasons for her self-imposed exile; while she was an unwitting victim herself, suffering a terrible fate that eventually sends her away from her homeland, most of her search for answers comes from research looking back on that time. Her father can't explain it to her; he has suffered a stroke which renders him unable to speak; flashbacks reveal what Agustin is unable to tell her.  Urania's own tragedy, eventually related to two incredulous female relatives,  underscores the monster that Trujillo has become, but at the same time, it also illustrates exactly  the sacrifices willing to be made by people who enjoy his good graces.

 A second narrative thread is taken up by the conspirators, including some of Trujillo's closest trusted military officers.While they lay in wait for Trujillo's car to pass by, the reasons behind their actions are revealed.  Everything has been carefully planned,  not only in terms of the assassination itself, but what is supposed to happen next -- a coup which will take out the existing Trujillistas, most notably Johnny Abbes Garcia, the sinister head of the SIM (military intelligence), and replace them with a junta with General "Pupo" Román at its head. Everyone in the group is on board, but when things go horribly wrong after the assassination, that above-mentioned paralysis kicks in as Román, himself one of the conspirators, balks and goes into his regular military general modedoing what is expected of him instead of stepping up and taking the reins of authority as planned.  

 Finally, the third voice is that of Trujillo on the last day of his life. He spends time in the past, recounting his disappointment in his sons,  his sexual conquests, and events which he's experienced during his reign --  for example the rounding up and slaughtering in 1937 of thousands of Haitians along the border with the Dominican Republic; the problems with Castro and the US; not to mention the June 14th movement and the assassination of the Mirabal sisters who dared speak out against him;, as well as his perceived enemies who've simply disappeared, many of them thrown to the sharks while still living -- all interspersed with his present.  As his body ages, he is plagued by problems with his prostate, which have made him both incontinent and impotent, a significant factor in not only his assassination, but in an earlier tragedy that brings the story full circle and highlights yet another theme of this novel in terms of the link between sex and power. 

It's difficult to talk about this book and some of its symbolism without giving away the show, hence only a sketchy discussion here, but it is an excellent novel.  Even though, as noted above, the author took some liberties in putting his story together, sometimes it's difficult to figure out exactly what is fictional here simply because it is all so realistic, all so "could have happened."  There are many wonderful scenes in this book, especially when the conspirators are waiting in the darkness for Trujillo's car to come by.  Even though they are there to kill someone, they spend time talking together about their families, their lives and what ultimately became the straw that broke the camel's back and brought them to this point.  In short,  they become real people who are looking forward to different lives and who deep down really love their country.   [As an aside, I knew Trujillo had been assassinated, but still, I only took my first reading break after the deed was done, getting in deeper and deeper, unable to put the book down until I knew that he was dead.]  Another fascinating sequence of scenes takes place in the jockeying for power after Trujillo is dead, involving Trujillo's son, his brothers, and most especially Trujillo's  puppet president Balaquer, who sees this time as his golden opportunity and manipulates the action most skillfully.  Actually, the power grabbing scenes and Balaquer's solutions verged  on the unbelievable, a little too nicely and quickly tied up so as to be unrealistic.   While the depictions of torture in this book are particularly grisly and gruesome, I can only surmise that the reality of the prisoners' treatment was not too far off the mark, highlighting even further the grotesque nature of this regime where savage revenge can be had for a price. My only other issue with this novel is that while the use of the three perspectives  is a good idea, sometimes as these narratives converge it is difficult to judge present from past -- I had a couple of sessions where I had to do a bit of rereading before I figured out what was going on and was able to continue. 

If you peruse the vast number of critical reviews of this novel, you will discover a wealth of symbolism lying beneath the action of this novel; if like me you're more of a casual reader and can't catch every single nuance, that's okay.  Feast of the Goat is not for the squeamish; if you're upset about yet another novel highlighting the evil that people do then pass on this one.  If, however, you are interested in circumstances that can create a person like Trujillo who can keep an entire nation paralyzed in the grip of his authority, this is a good place to start. Although helpful, even if you know nothing about the Dominican Republic or its history, it's definitely not a deal breaker -- the author makes everything extremely clear.  Most highly recommended for readers of historical fiction, and for readers of the so-called "Dictator novel" form, where writers have used their literary talents to respond to tyranny, an area I plan to further explore in the near future.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

*They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Serpent's Tail, 2010
originally published 1935
127 pp

 [#628 on the list of 1001 books you must read]

"Past a certain point you kept moving automatically, without actually being conscious of moving. One minute you would be travelling at top speed and the next moment you started falling."

They Shoot Horses Don't They? is set (and was written) during America's great depression, and begins somewhat cryptically with the words "The prisoner will stand," followed by a brief reflection by Robert Syverten who has just been convicted of the murder of Gloria Beatty and is awaiting sentencing.  During Robert's trial, the Prosecuting Attorney had told the jury  that Gloria "died in agony, friendless, alone except for her brutal murderer." While this opening has all of the earmarks of a crime fiction novel, inwardly Robert dispels that notion with an au contraire:  
  “She did not die in agony.  She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile. How could she have been in agony then? And she wasn't friendless.”
As his sentence is handed down in short sentences and phrases throughout the novel, the typeface growing larger and larger until the judge's final words are spoken, Robert looks back on how he came to be here at this particular moment in time, all starting with a random meeting on the streets of Los Angeles. The novel not only examines how much pain or humiliation a person can withstand in his or her own fight for survival or that of others,  but it also looks at the utter hopelessness for some in life's unending dance toward the American dream.  

Both Robert and Gloria have been drawn to Hollywood in hopes of making it big. Both have been rejected; neither of them can get registered by Central Casting and the idea of someone on the inside helping them to break in to the movies is a bit ludicrous, as Gloria notes,

"In this business, how can you tell who'll help you?...One day you're an electrician and the next day you're a producer."
 They meet by accident, and it isn't long until Gloria tells Robert about an upcoming dance marathon that promises free food, a place to sleep and a $1,000 prize -- but the big draw for Gloria is that the marathons are often attended by directors and producers who might have a part for you in an upcoming movie.  Robert is reluctant but gives in, and the two become one of 144 couples hoping to win; half of the dancers have "made a business of going in marathon dances from all over the country;" the rest were just ordinary people hoping for that one shot at success in what will ultimately become a monumental test of endurance and a desperate fight for survival.   At first, as Robert notes,

 "for the first week we had to dance, but after that you didn't. All you had to do was keep moving."

Dancing or staying on one's feet for 1 hour and 50 minutes, with 10-minute breaks before the next round begins is tough enough, but McCoy reminds us that what is a life and death struggle for some is merely entertainment or business for others.  Pennies are thrown from audience members in a "silver shower" after contestants perform "specialty" acts such as tap dancing for the little money that lands on the floor. When the audience isn't large or famous enough, the dancers are put through an especially grueling "novelty" each night called the derby, a 15 minute race where the couples go around a painted oval on the floor, with the woman holding on to a belt specially designed to keep the couple together, a feat designed to bring in more watchers, which means more money to the promoters. The last couple in the race is disqualified, so the derby  becomes a painful race to stay ahead. (Oh, the symbolism abounds in this novel and it's simply amazing!) People begin to stumble or fall, and the others have no choice but to step over them to make it to their goal, hurrying over broken bodies and broken dreams as "the derby races were killing them off."   The promoters are especially hopeful that the show will bring in "that Hollywood bunch," and as the contest becomes more painful and competitive, the promoters up the ante with cheap stunts like an arranged marriage that will yield the couple $100 -- entirely sponsored, of course and "in line with the management's policy to give you nothing but high class entertainment." 

during a derby, a scene from the film of the same name, directed by Sidney Pollack

But it is Gloria at the heart of this story, with her defeatist outlook which  manifests itself in ongoing death wishes for herself throughout  the novel.  Her childhood was a hardscrabble mess; leaving her West Texas home brought her to LA where she traded one set of problems for another. She's a misfit, and having tried and failed so many times, she just doesn't care any longer, she's hopeless in the true meaning of the word, tired of the idea that "the big break is always coming tomorrow," and "sick of doing the same thing over and over again." She's  ready to "get off this merry-go-round...through with the whole stinking thing."  She's tired of the growing numbers of celebrities in the audience and their success which only makes her envious,  of having to suck up to the sponsors and demeaning herself, and she's  more than  ready to escape the struggle of her life. And after the dance is over, what then?  The marathon truly is Gloria's life encapsulated in a matter of days and hours. 

I could seriously go on and on about this book  because the 127 pages is just filled with amazing though stark-in-style writing, wonderful symbolism that doesn't bog a casual reader like myself down into frustration. They Shoot Horses, Don't They is a magnificent novel that snapshots a period of time in a meaningful although bleak manner, creating a microcosm of America with hope and hopelessness right at the center of life in a most miserable era, but also carrying a great deal of modern relevance. A large number of reviewers have mentioned the modern reality-TV phenomenon in connection with this novel, and rightly so ... think of all of the shows out there where people face ridicule, public humiliation and tackle the limits of their personal endurance in the hopes of some measure of  fame and cash, especially in today's economy.  In the meanwhile, the voyeurs at  home keep these shows going (myself included ... I have a thing for chef competition shows) and we watch and root for our favorites as the producers devise challenge after challenge and sometimes impossible-seeming hoops for these people to go through.  For us in the comfort of our living rooms, it's entertainment; for the people competing it's not all fun and games -- for some it's that  one-time  shot at fulfilling their dreams.  I loved this book and it's definitely one not to be missed. 

as a postscript, last night I watched the movie via Netflix and I recommend it as well -- read the book first, though.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

January: 1001 books I must read before I die .... well, at least a month's worth!

I really never bought into the whole 1001 whatever you must do/see/read before you die thing, but I thought it might be interesting to see how many of these books I actually have and start reading them.  I recently bought this book from Amazon UK (the newest, most updated version), so  when it gets here I'm going to go through my shelves and try to see if there are any matches on my shelves to what's on the list.  In the meantime, I'll use's  list as a guide for getting started with January's reading.  I have a few books that I'm certain aren't on the list that I'm planning to throw in as well.

My only resolution this year is to read what I have, recycle the ones I don't want to keep and reuse the space for new books. 

good luck to me!