What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

The Price of My Soul, by Bernadette Devlin*****

ThePriceofMySoulDevlin write this, her autobiography, when she was all of 23 years old. Had it been anyone else I would have considered it ridiculous, a juvenile pretention, but Bernadette Devlin was one of the primary fighters for Irish freedom during the tumultuous 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and given how events played out, it is likely that she wrote this while fully anticipating that she’d be killed in the struggle fairly early on. Goodness knows, the British cops tried. Here’s a bit of background information from Wikipedia:

 On 16 January 1981 she and her husband were shot by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who broke into their home near CoalislandCounty Tyrone. The gunmen shot Devlin fourteen times in front of her children. British soldiers were watching the McAliskey home at the time, but failed to prevent the assassination attempt, indeed it has been claimed that Devlin’s assassination was ordered by British authorities and that collusion was a factor. An army patrol of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, entered the house and waited for half an hour. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has claimed they were waiting for the couple to die. Another group of soldiers then arrived and transported her by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The paramilitaries had torn out the telephone and while the wounded couple were being given first aid by the newly arrived troops, a soldier ran to a neighbour’s house, commandeered a car, and drove to the home of a councillor to telephone for help. The couple were taken by helicopter to hospital in nearby Dungannon for emergency treatment and then to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care.

 Soon after her recovery, the author-activist went on a speaking tour, and this reviewer was able to hear her talk when she came to the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.  Her intelligence, eloquence, and fierce, courageous nationalism left me spellbound. And yet, it was only recently that I learned she’d written a memoir over a decade earlier. I was even more amazed to find that it was available for sale, albeit used and fairly banged up; all praise to the internet. And so this time, instead of heaping praise upon the publishers, I will thank my youngest son for securing a copy for me at Christmas. It was worth the wait.

Devlin was orphaned, along with her sisters and brothers, when she was still a teenager. She and her siblings had a conversation and decided that they would raise themselves, rather than be parceled out to relatives and neighbors, broken up like pieces of a candy bar to be distributed willy-nilly by the church. But her parents left her a legacy, one that said not to let anyone shove a Devlin around. One of my favorite moments in her engaging narrative is early on, when her mother is being attended by a physician for a fallen arch in one foot. The doctor’s solution is to tightly bind it in hopes it will grow back to its proper configuration, but instead it becomes desperately deformed. One day when the doctor is rebandaging it, her mother complains of pain, and the doctor replies that there is no real pain; he says her mother is merely neurotic. In response, her mother raises her good foot and kicks the man across the room.

A woman after my own heart.

But the best passages, as the reader might expect, are those detailing the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, and in particular the struggle based on social class regardless of religion. She tells of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday, when a peaceful parade including small children and babies in their strollers is gunned down by cops. Devlin speaks of the “evil delight” she sees on the faces of violent cops as they beat people down at an earlier demonstration.

There are lessons to be learned here, and now is the time to learn them.

Remarkably enough, there are still copies of this historical treasure for sale, used. Anyone that is interested in the Irish freedom struggle; cop violence; or Irish history should find a copy now, while you can still get them cheaply.

Hannibal, by Patrick N. Hunt***

HannibalHannibal was the first general to defeat the forces of Rome, and Hunt is the man qualified to tell us about it. I read my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. This book becomes available to the public July 11, 2017.

Early history has never been my area of concentration, but since retirement, I push myself out of my usual comfort zone, often to excellent result. This time it proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Hunt is unquestionably qualified to discuss this topic. He is an historian of renown and has dedicated years to the study of Hannibal, even embarking on an expedition across the Alps in order to see what Hannibal experienced—or the closest proximity to it in modern times. On the other hand, I confess I was in it for two things: military strategy and history, which does interest me, and of course, the elephants.

Imagine riding into battle on the back of an elephant. Not only is an elephant massive, it is also impervious to most of the weaponry available at this time. Spears and javelins would just bounce off its hide. War elephants had their tusks sharpened, and being charged by such a force had to be terrifying. And in reading this history it occurred to me that Hannibal’s men would have been bemused indeed if they had known that elephants would be regarded by many of us, in future days, with great sentimentality. They would never have believed the elephant might become endangered. Who could kill elephants? But these are my musings, not Hunt’s.

Hunt is meticulous in demonstrating what Hannibal did and why he did it. He starts with his family background, in particular that he was the son of the great general Hamilcar, who took him to a temple, made him stand at the altar where the live sacrifice had been made, and swear lifelong hatred of Rome, whose government and military made war against Carthage and caused a lot of suffering. Hunt carefully separates what actually happened, from what probably happened, from what maybe happened, but the speculative language—may have, would have, almost certainly—slows me down, because each time the narrative picks up and I immerse myself in the text, I see the modifiers and draw back. I go back and reread in order to find out what is actually known, mentally removing all of the guesses and educated guesses, and then I am left with what is known. And although I appreciate that there are not vast treasure-troves of primary documents sitting around for Hunt to access, given the antiquity of the subject, I wish there were some way to read only the known facts. At the 70% mark I became frustrated and bailed.

Hunt quotes often from Livy and Polybius, both of whom I read many years ago as an undergraduate, and which still grace my shelves. My initial impression was that it might be more useful to go dig up those books, reread them, and give this one a miss. However, what Hunt does is sift through their information and provide an analysis that is deeper and more objective than theirs. Livy was, after all, a Roman; he is renowned as a scholar, but not necessarily objective.

And so those that have a serious interest in the history of Northern Africa and/or Southern Europe, or an interest in military history, can count this as a strong title to add to their historical libraries. To put it another way, what it lacks in terms of easy flowing narrative, it makes up for in accuracy and analysis.

Recommended to those that have a serious interest in world history or military history.

Michael Collins, by Tim Pat Coogan****

MichaelCollinsTo date, this is the single best volume that’s been written about Collins, and it’s a meal. I purchased this title on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon when I was there to visit family a few years ago. Although the length of the book is listed as 480 pages in paperback, the reader needs to come prepared. The type is tiny and dense, and it took me a long time to wade through it. If it were formatted using more standard guidelines, it would be a great deal longer.

As I write this review I am halfway through Coogan’s epic history of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and the style in which he writes is consistent in both books. Coogan tells us everything that is historically important, and he also tells us everything else he finds out, with no apparent filtering. His writing is half Irish history, half family Bible in the sense that if someone was briefly or peripherally involved with Collins, their proud relatives can probably find that person and his or her historical role somewhere in these pages. His shoe size is here, and the names of every girl he flirted with. For a man that lived so briefly, he left a large shadow, and the author was plainly unwilling to let even the tiniest bit of research go to waste, relevant or no.

I am somewhat surprised that Collins doesn’t rate more favorably with the author, given that his name is the one most associated with the creation of an independent Ireland. But Coogan does due diligence in establishing the brutality of the British occupiers, who killed indiscriminately with the use of terror. At one point, soldiers opened fire on a school yard where little children were at play; these royal ambassadors were the original school shooters, killing six little ones for being Catholic. In the protests that followed, women and girls knelt before British tanks and said their rosaries for those that had been killed for their Fenian identities.

The Irish freedom struggle took place at a time when the whole world was on fire. The Russian Revolution was unfurling with breathtaking speed; at the same time, there was no established Marxist revolution to look to for guidance, and Irish freedom fighters had no single idea of what political ideology should shape the struggle. Most of the revolutionaries were barely old enough to shave, and a lot of errors were made because of this lack of clear vision. The results were often tragic.

There’s an interesting discussion of whether Irishmen should become German allies during World War I. There is a strong resistance to becoming shills for the British, and so the question, then, is whether to remain neutral, or take the side of Britain’s enemy in the hope of receiving reciprocal assistance. In the end, nobody was organized enough, in this era of little technology, to come up with a cohesive plan, so the point was a moot one.

Should you read this biography? I think it depends upon how much time you have, and how strong your interest level is. One consideration might be to purchase it as a reference volume and flip through it to tease out the most relevant information, but be forewarned: sifting through the minutiae is not an easy enterprise. For researchers, the photos alone might be of interest, since they constitute primary documents.

Recommended for those with strong basic knowledge of Irish history that want to flesh out the details, and for those building a reference library.

Everything Belongs to Us, by Yoojin Grace Wuertz****

everythingbelongstousI was invited to read this novel by Random House and Net Galley, and although I read multiple books at a time, this was the one I saved for bedtime, after the lights were out, the hound snoring at the foot of the bed, and everyone else was asleep. This is prime reading time, and this was the story I wanted to follow uninterrupted. You can get a copy for yourself this Tuesday, February 28, 2017.

This story is set in 1978 in Seoul, South Korea, and features the political demonstrations by workers and students against the notoriously repressive Park regime. The main characters are all involved briefly with these protests, either as participants or as witnesses. While the setting is handled competently, the success of this novel is owed to character, character, and character.

We are introduced to three young adults. First is Jisun, a bright young daughter of a ruling scion. Jisun harbors tremendous anger toward her father, and as the story unspools, we find out why, little by little. One hint I’ll offer that doesn’t spoil the ending is that it isn’t about rape or sexual abuse of any kind, and I was glad not to see this overused device employed here. Everything in this story is fresh and original.

Our story comes to us from multiple viewpoints. My favorite character by far is Namin, a striving member of the working class battling to rise through hard work and intellectual talent. An unlikely but wholly believable friendship develops between Jisun, who is trying to grasp what ordinary people experience day to day, and Namin. Namin’s parents labor nearly every waking hour running a food truck, and her sister works in an auto plant so that Namin can attend the university. The choices that are made in order to fuel Namin’s success, and by extension that of her family, are hard ones, and this is just one aspect of the book that would make for excellent discussion in a literature class or book club.

The third main character is Sunam, a young man from a middle class family who finds himself in a love triangle with these two young women. At one point I feared the book would turn melodramatic, but in the author’s capable hands it is deftly maneuvered and is made believable. In fact, while I didn’t always like these characters, by the halfway point I absolutely believed all three of them.

The only weakness here is the way in which the protestors are depicted; they seem addled and the struggle appears to have no political platform whatsoever. Liberal Christian missionaries appear and vanish with no clear role, and although a purpose becomes apparent eventually, I felt they were more of a distraction than a worthwhile component.

The struggle against the Park government was a more worthy one than Wuertz’s narrative suggests. Had this been given firmer contours, this would be a five star read.

For those looking to broaden their literary horizons or just looking for a good story, this novel is recommended.

The Prisoner, by Alex Berenson****

theprisoner Berenson has written a whole series of espionage thrillers featuring John Wells, a CIA operative fighting al Qaeda. I was unaware of this when I requested a DRC from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, but I find it stands up quite nicely as a stand-alone novel. Would I have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the others first? We will never know.  However, if you’d like to read this tightly woven thriller either in sequence or singly, it will be available January 31, 2017.

To enjoy an espionage thriller, one has to buy the premise, namely that the CIA is a heroic organization, or at least has a segment of good guys that are fighting terrorism to keep innocent civilians safe. This is a premise I buy cheerfully for the sake of a good yarn; I do it when I read crime fiction in which the cops are morally righteous, or at least more good than bad, so why not here. In exchange, I got to enjoy an intense, interesting thriller that is different from a lot of the other fiction I read, and novelty is a meaningful selling point when one spends several hours daily with one’s nose in a book.

This is a literate read. In a world of dumbed-down fiction that plays to the lowest common denominator, I have come to value writers that have a strong vocabulary and aren’t afraid to use it. I also learned some things about the Middle East and how the USA operates there, including a few new specialized terms and some information about the cultures featured in that part of the world. Of course, this is fiction and it could also be true that Berenson made it all up, but his past includes work as a war correspondent in Iraq, and so perhaps this is what gives the setting its authenticity.

Our premise is that there is a mole at a high level inside of the CIA. John Wells has been feeling the itch to travel, impatient with his wife’s demand for more family time and suffocated by the dull sameness of everyday life in the States. He volunteers to return to the Mid-East and pose as an al Qaeda recruit so that he can be tossed into a Bulgarian prison and cozy up to the high-up operative that is interned there.

I blanched slightly at this; I have read a couple of former CIA employees’ memoirs, and I had to swallow hard to pretend that this guy would actually do this thing. But when we read thrillers, whether it’s crime, mystery, or a spy story, we don’t really want to read about tedium and paper pushing; we want excitement. Once I bought the premise, I was wedded to the narrative.

The other key characters here are Shafer, the CIA officer Wells reports to and who is also hunting for the mole; and the mole, whose name I can’t tell you without ruining the book.At first I thought I was seeing shallow characterization, but Wells’ character is developed in a way that is so subtle that the reader may not realize it’s occurred. Gradually we come to know who Wells is, how he thinks, how he will respond. On the other hand, our mole is a loser and remains a caricature throughout.

Every significant character here is male, but from what little I know, that’s consistent with the CIA, especially among the highest officers, a glass ceiling that’s hard to crack, so Berenson is merely reflecting US intelligence as it actually is.

The plot’s arc is a little different than one might usually expect.  The hook at the start is arresting, and I expected it to perhaps ratchet up, up, up from there. Instead, the pace flagged once we were about 15 percent of the way in, and then gradually began to ascend again. By the time I was 70 percent of the way in, I understood that the next time I picked it up, I would have to finish it.

When we hit the climax, set in France, I threw off the quilt and sat up. The pulse-pounding denouement was inconsistent with lying supine and I read the last 15 percent of the book sitting up and leaning forward.

This story is guaranteed to spike your adrenaline and chase away the winter blahs. Recommended to those that enjoy espionage thrillers.

The Famished Road, by Ben Okri**

thefamishedroadI surrender! Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Media, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for an honest review; however, try though I have, I cannot push past the molasses-like allegory and other figurative language to locate a plot. After painfully forcing my way through the first 20% of the book, I went to Goodreads to see what other reviewers had to say about it. Some felt as I did, but others swore that if the reader could endure the first two-thirds of the story, the last third would not only be so amazing, it would also enlighten us as to why the earlier part was necessary. Seeing this, I vowed to persevere. By the 25% mark, I found I was avoiding this DRC, because just about every other galley in my possession was either more enjoyable to read, or more rewarding, or both.

Tonight I decided it was time to put up or shut up. Maybe this is one of those rare occasions when one should read a book out of sequence. I skipped to the 70% mark and found it was pretty much more of the same. The allegory pointed toward the horrific debt load that cripples African nations, but I already knew that, and if that is actually where this story is supposed to lead me–because really, I am still not sure–then it’s a disappointment. I already knew about the impact of colonial overlords on African nations, and this did nothing to improve either my knowledge or my appreciation for that, or for literature.

I will add, however, that I have also never liked magical realism. Either write fiction or nonfiction, don’t try to do both at once. Even the work of literary goddess Isabel Allende makes me crazy this way: we are in the midst of what feels like a genuine memoir, and then someone turns bottle-green and levitates. No, no, and no.

Those that have a great love of magical realism and thirst for African fiction may find joy here. This book has won prestigious awards, and I had anticipated that reading it would be rewarding. Just because it didn’t happen for me doesn’t mean it won’t happen for you; but if you come to feast at Okri’s table, bring a high literacy level with you, or you’ll find yourself leaving it still hungry.

This title is available for purchase now.

1917, by Boris Dralnyuk**

1917I received my DRC for this collection courtesy of Net Galley and Pushkin Press. I thank them for the opportunity to read and review; this compilation of poetry and prose will be for sale on December 1, 2016. What a crying shame it’s so negative.

There are a few of us left out here—dinosaurs, to be sure—that regard the initial two or three years of the Russian Revolution as an inspirational time, a time when the working class and the Russian peasantry cast off their shackles, ran the brutal, entitled royal family and their minions out of power and eventually to a richly deserved death, and took control of their lives and their nation. When I saw this collection, I believed that this perspective would be represented here somewhere.

Instead, we read poetry about the Tsar’s wine. Oh, no! They destroyed all that expensive wine! Give me a break. Millions of peasants freed from bondage, and all we hear about is the wine casks, and some sorrowful reflections that lament the defeat of the Mensheviks—the party that tried to halt the progress of the revolution and create a bourgeois democratic state. All those sorrowful White Russians weeping into their vodka.

Do I have a bias? Of course I do, but unlike our editor here, I admit mine. The introduction to this thing, which is overlong and somewhat duplicitous, tells us that rather than relate the various political positions that were held during this cataclysmic time, we should instead look at feelings, at experiences. But everyone’s feelings during this tremendous upheaval, a time when the news footage at the time of the revolution shows throngs of joyful Russian workers screaming with enthusiasm, is apparently either sorrowful—aw geez, the poor royals—or conflicted. Not one person is glad it happened.

Poetry and prose are, at their root, political, and in rewriting history, Dralyuk demonstrates this. This collection is revisionist dross.

One other comment I’d make is that when editors decide to republish historic writing, they are often deluded as to how much of their own prose readers are looking for. For every piece, for every author, there is way too much introductory narrative. I really just want to read the work itself, not so much Dralyuk’s discussion of them. Had I enjoyed most of the poetry and prose, I would have upgraded this review to three stars and stated that it is hard to find the original work amidst the rambling discussion. Generally, the poem is short, the introduction is long; lather, rinse, repeat. The same is true of the prose.

So to those lonely Marxists out there hoping for literature, for poetry that’s in English and available readily in the US, I have to say, put that plastic away, because this isn’t that.

Murder in Dragon City, by Qin Ming**

murderindragonIs there a killer on the loose in Dragon City, one that’s trailing body parts everywhere he goes?  I received my DRC in exchange for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and Amazon Crossing.  This collection of stories l is written by a Chinese medical examiner, translated to English by Alex Woodend. I’m always up for something new, and so I took my galley and curled up. Unfortunately, this one just never gelled for me. I tried setting it aside, reading other things and coming back to it, hoping that with fresh eyes I would like it more than I had before; finally I had to face the fact that I couldn’t write a happy review and also be honest.

It happens.

Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of this story in my view is, as one might expect, the forensic detail and physical knowledge the author commands. But that can cut two ways, if you’ll pardon the expression. Some of us just love gore, and the more fleshy fingers or toes that land in sizzling oil, the more we eat it up.

On the other hand, some of us are completely grossed out by frequent, grisly findings, and this author put his thumb on my “ick” button and never took it off.

One other thing I like and that’s consistent is that Chinese cops that find corpses or find themselves in strange, scary situations don’t feel compelled to feign indifference. There’s no noir to be found here, just honest cops that yelp when they are scared and that dive when they hear a loud noise near a crime scene. The candor is refreshing and sometimes funny.

Obviously, each story has a different spin to it, but the tone overall is much the same.

I confess that the last time I studied Chinese government and culture was in the post-Mao period, before the largest Stalinist types of government fell apart; I don’t know what life is like for women these days in China. But the author never seems comfortable portraying women as people that are female. Women are featured and discussed as political bigwigs, servants, and technicians, but we never see them acting in concert with men or each other. There’s a clump of men, and then…there’s this woman. Sometimes. The woman is always featured as “other”. The male cops gather and discuss whether any woman would be ruthless enough to commit the crime in question, but by this point I was so green around the gills that I didn’t want to find out whodunit or why. I just wanted to be done, which I am.

The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jeffries****

theteaplanterswifeGwendolyn is 19 years old when she marries Laurence Hooper, the owner of a tea plantation in Ceylon, an island nation south of India now named Sri Lanka. Jeffries provides a compelling, sometimes painful glimpse of the mores and assumptions of the heirs of the UK Empire at the outset of the peasants’ rebellion led by Ghandi. Though a few small glitches occasionally distract, this is a strong piece of fiction that fulfilled the writer’s mission admirably. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Crown Publishing for the DRC, which I received free in return for an honest review. The book is on sale today.

The protagonist is not a sympathetic one, and those that need a main character they can love should stop even considering this book right now. But some of literature’s most interesting characters are flawed ones, and the development of this one within the constraints of what Caucasians in the UK expected their lives to resemble at this time, and within the even greater constraints of material self-interest, is fascinating. I found myself wanting to haul this character out to the cheese room and tell her that all other women are not her enemies. She has almost nothing required of her by the easy life into which she has married, and as a local gossip points out, Gwen has “never had to fight for anything”.

Gwen has a passel of problems, however, some real, some imagined. She sees her sister-in-law as a rival not only for her husband’s affections and loyalty, but also for his fortune. She sees his wealthy former girlfriend and business associate, Christina, trying to pull him back into a relationship. What about MacGregor, the surly foreman of the laborers? What about Savi Ravasinghe? By the time the book was halfway done, I found myself alternately scolding her for making enemies everywhere and then, a heartbeat later, screeching at her to beware.

Ultimately I didn’t think I was impressed by this story until I looked back on my notes. I had highlighted nearly every warning bell and red herring and made little notations like, “Noooo!” Obviously this story engaged me all the way through. At times I was frustrated, but that was the author’s intention. At no time was I bored. And given the level of suspense and a certain amount of mystery, I realized that one genre tag had gone missing. I added this title to my “mystery” shelf, because there is so much unknown information that will keep the reader up late as well as any whodunit.

The author makes a few missteps that break the spell of time and place momentarily. At one point there is an argument between two of the characters about Ravasinghe, and one accuses the other of race prejudice, while the other responds that it “has nothing to do with the color of his skin!” This is either ignorance or revisionism. In the 1920s and 1930s racism was at a fever pitch. Colonialists based their system of rule partially on paternalism, which overtly declared that the “lesser” races needed the great white fathers to look after them, employ them, house and feed them. In the USA, Jim Crow and the Klan were at their all time most powerful; African-Americans were afraid to walk on the same sidewalks in the South, and in the North they nevertheless kept to their own neighborhoods to the greatest degree possible. Biracial marriage was an invitation to ostracism or even death, and less than one percent of the Caucasian population in any English speaking nation would even pretend that such ostracism wasn’t about race.

In fact, US President William Howard Taft declared that the day would dawn when the United States flag would fly at “equidistant points” that would include North America, South America, and Central America in fact rather than merely economically, and he told the American people that God had willed this due to the moral and racial superiority of Americans—by which he meant Caucasian Americans. In the East, look what the peasantry went through just to get the vote!  No, no white folks in the British Empire or USA were going to defend themselves against charges of racism; racism was assumed to be the will of God.

There’s another “oopsie” moment when the roof of a large building catches fire and the fire is put out with a garden hose and pots of water. No.

But all of this is mitigated by the expert manner in which the author describes the setting, having had a family member that lived on such a plantation, or a similar one. Part of the reason I wanted to read this DRC is the fact that it was set in Ceylon, and here Jeffries does not disappoint.  I was afraid the ending would either be saccharine or unspeakably brutal, but she deftly avoids both extremes and comes up with a surprising and believable alternative.

So in the end, I recommend this book to you. It’s not always easy for some of us to look in the mirror, or at the mirror of one’s ancestors, but everyone comes from somewhere, and the playing field still isn’t level. Nobody can fix what’s wrong today without knowing where the trouble came from. The Tea Planter’s Wife is a historical treasure in this regard; Jeffries is to be congratulated.