A Bit of Halldor Laxness – Book Reviews

Since I’ve been reading a lot of medieval Icelandic sagas over the past year, I’ve often thought to myself that I should read a bit of more  contemporary Icelandic literature. A simple Google search prominently displayed Halldór Laxness‘s name. Laxness was an Icelandic author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel, Independent People, in 1955. I marked Independent People as a book to read some time ago, but I’ve held off on reading it because it is a longer work and I was unfamiliar with the the author’s style. So I resolved to see if he had any other, less daunting books on which a new reader could cut their teeth. Upon deciding that, I promptly forgot about Laxness until I made a literary pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts and Walden Pond this past October. My wife and I were exploring downtown Concord, and being a bookworm I had to visit The Concord Bookshop especially considering the town’s literary heritage. Whenever I go into an independent bookstore, I always feel the obligation to buy something. As I browsed I came across some prominently displayed Halldór Laxness books on a shelf in the middle of the store, and my notion of reading some of his shorter works before attempting Independent People came rushing back into my mind. There were a few options (though I don’t remember what all those options were). After reading the descriptions of each book I opted for the shortest, Under the Glacier, as the back cover claimed it to be a funny novel. It sat on my shelf for a month before I finally got to it (most books on my shelf wait much, much longer), and what I found was a real treat and a new favorite author (I have several).

under

Under the Glacier, by Halldór Laxness. Translated into English by Magnus Magnusson.

Under the Glacier tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose acumen and ability to write in shorthand has caught the attention of the Bishop of Iceland. The Bishop calls the young man into his office one day to ask a favor, and asks the narrator to go to the town near Snæfellsjökull to investigate the state of Christianity in the town and its residents as there have been disturbing reports of strange occurrences in the area for some time. Chief among them are the fact that the pastor has apparently boarded up the local church, allowed a mysterious building to be built next to the church, has refused to perform funerals, and has reportedly deposited an object resembling a casket atop the nearby glacier. Not to mention the pastor has been abandoned by his wife, but has not sought out divorce and remarriage as a clergyman should. The young man is given the title “Emissary to the Bishop of Iceland,” or “Embi” for short, and told that the church just wants the facts; they don’t want him to adulterate the report with his own, negligent opinions. Embi quickly finds himself in the village under the glacier where mystics from around the globe gather to “overcome death.” Poor Embi has to put up with these frustrating characters as he tries to perform the duty entrusted upon him by the bishop, and in doing so learns of the haunting presence of a woman named Uá, who, when he meets her himself, will lead him both to the utmost passion and frightful devastation.

Let me start off by stating outright that Under the Glacier is not a book for everyone. That doesn’t mean it is a bad book by any means! It is actually quite excellent, but the narrative style may not appeal to many readers. The narrative is told in a semi-stream of conscious style as a report both written and recorded on cassettes by Embi. As such, Embi usually refers to himself as “the undersigned,” “Embi,” and sometimes in the first person. The narrative style also leads to confusion to know who is talking at any given moment. Compounding all this is the heavy symbolism that pervades the novel. If you can make it through all this, then you’ll love Under the Glacier. It is a wonderfully literary work that is unafraid to wear its influences on its sleeve, ranging from the Icelandic sagas, Norse and Christian mythology, American modernism, and Derridaean Deconstruction, and it reads like an amalgamation of these influences with a dash of Faulknerian southern gothic style thrown in. Students of literature, and especially literary theory, will find fertile, humorous ground under Snæfellsjökull, even if Embi does not. Others may find it a difficult read that begins and ends nowhere whilst making little sense in between, but maybe that is the point after all.

Paradise

Paradise Reclaimed, by Halldór Laxness. Translated by Magnus Magnusson.

While I enjoyed reading Under the Glacier, I began to suspect that it was not very indicative of Laxness’s other works. I wanted to get a better sense of Laxness’s typical writing before tackling Independent People, so I decided to check out his other books that are readily available in English. While reading descriptions I came across Paradise Reclaimed and without hesitation decided it would be the very next book I would read because it tied my interest in Icelandic literature to Utah, which is where I grew up.

Steinar of Hlíðar is an impoverished farmer living in Iceland during the latter half of the nineteenth century with his wife and two children. By luck or magic, Steinar becomes the owner of a wonderfully beautiful horse that is the envy of his neighbors and the great love of he and his family. Hoping to improve the situation of his children, Steinar takes the horse to Þingvellir to present it to the Danish King who is visiting to commemorate the 1000th year of the settling of Iceland by Vikings. The king thanks him profusely and Steinar wends his way back home on foot. At Þingvellir, he had happened across a Mormon missionary, Bishop Þjoðrekur, who he encounters again on his way home tied to a post outside a Lutheran church. Steinar unties the Mormon. These two actions, presenting the horse to the king and assisting a Mormon missionary, set in motion a series of events that will leave Steinar’s family destitute and Steinar himself far away in Spanish Fork, Utah where he works as a brick maker of no small skill to fund his family’s immigration.

This is an achingly wonderful book. It is beautifully told with many layers of symbolism and narrative enveloping. It often reads like a saga of old and is definitely in conversation with some of the great sagas that relate Iceland’s adoption of Christianity around the beginning of the eleventh century. Laxness doesn’t shy from criticizing where criticism is due, but his criticism isn’t generalized and is quite fair. Layered symbolism permeates the novel and may often leave readers pondering if the real world is just a magical illusion, or vice versa. And, at the end, it all circles back to where it began with Steinar of Hlíðar mending a fence in his own, personal paradise. Few books have left me quite so emotionally exhausted as this one, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern Icelandic literature, any Utahn who may have an interest in the Icelandic immigrants that settled in Spanish Fork during the latter part of the nineteenth century, or anyone who just likes to read a good book.

With these two books under my belt, I feel confident in tackling Independent People in the not too distant future.

 

Even More Bookses

Alright, jumping right back into it, here are four more books that I’ve read over the past six months!

The Returned, by Jason Mott. Published by Harlequin MIRA.

The Returned, by Jason Mott. Published by Harlequin MIRA.

The Returned, by Jason Mott is the source material of the new show on ABC titled, Resurrection. As the TV show’s name makes obvious, this book tackles the notion of the dead coming back to life, but not as zombies (which is only mildly disappointing in this case). Instead, The Returned follows a more Biblical approach to the dead rising from the grave, and does so intelligently and thoughtfully.

Jacob Hargrave died after his eighth birthday party in 1966. His parents, Harold and Lucille did not have any other children and have tarried in this mortal coil for decades since their son’s passing. You can only imagine the shock of one day answering the door and finding that their only son has returned from the world beyond having not aged a day since he died. Lucille, a faithful Bible thumper who had previously decried the other Returned popping up all over the world as the work of Satan, is overjoyed by her own son’s return. Harold is not so sure, and he isn’t the only one. As more and more Returned come back to life, the country and the world begin to overflow by the vast increase in global population. The Returned are discriminated against, confined to prisons and detention camps, and often killed (they don’t come back to life immortalized). As their world and society crumble away due to the rising of the deceased, Harold and Lucille do their best to protect the son they had lost and pick up the pieces of their long since shattered lives.

I was very intrigued by the premise and to see how Mott handled a topic as surprisingly unconventional as resurrected beings, and I was pleased to see that he capably did so. Mott’s writing is somewhat dry, but the characters are drawn with all the complexity one would expect of good fiction writing, and develop accordingly throughout the course of the novel. The plot moves somewhat sporadically, and advances by jumping weeks or months ahead of time frequently, which unfortunately made the the overall plot seem disjointed at times. Overall, though, the payoff makes the read worth it. The return of lost loved ones may be what all of us desire at certain points, perhaps even everyday throughout our lives. Mortality doesn’t work that way. Instead, we must persevere and hold onto the love we felt for those we’ve lost, and use that love to help shape our relationships with the living.

Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis. Published by Soho Press.

Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis. Published by Soho Press.

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis is the second book from Soho Press I picked up while attending last year’s BEA. It is the third entry in the authors’ Nina Borg series and takes place in Denmark. Again, it’s hard to pick up a series in the middle when the characters have already developed in previous books, but like A Blind Goddess, I was able to jump into Death of a Nightingale with little difficulty.

Nina Borg, the series’ eponymous character, is a Red Cross nurse in Denmark where she works at a crisis center. At some point in the past (probably in one of the previous books in the series), Nina met Natasha Doroshenko, a Ukrainian woman who fled to Denmark after her husband was brutally murdered in Kiev. Now, Natasha is once again on the run from an abusive fiancé, but while on the run he too is killed in the same manner as her first husband. Natasha, who was suspected for the murder of her first husband, is the prime suspect in this murder, and she escapes from police custody in a desperate attempt to get to her child in the Red Cross crisis center and escape from Denmark. While Natasha is on the run it is up to Nina to clear Natasha’s name, but Nina is unaware that lurking behind the murders is a sinister presence from Russia’s sordid past that will stop at nothing to find Natasha and her child, and silence them forever.

Death of a Nightingale is another solid mystery published by Soho Press. The characters are all believable, and the Danish setting is actually quite alluring. The action is broken up into a few different interweaving plot threads, and the authors manage them all deftly. These different threads all come together at the end for a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. Like the Billy Boyle series, I probably won’t go out of my way to pick up another entry in Nina Borg’s series. Though, if I come across another, I won’t have any qualms at all with reading it.

Deadly Heat by Richard Castle. Published by Voice.

Deadly Heat by Richard Castle. Published by Voice.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I love Castle! Though this season hasn’t been the series’ strongest, it is still my favorite TV series, and this makes the tie-in novels all the more satisfying to me. Deadly Heat is the fifth in Castle’s Nikki Heat series, and it features all the twists, turns, bullets, and explosives as the previous books as well as the TV show on which the books are based. Just a disclaimer once again, the author, Richard Castle is a fictional character on a TV show. He doesn’t exist. The Nikki Heat books are ghost-written. With that out of the way I must admit I may be biased toward the Nikki Heat series due to its connection to Castle, but these books have proven that they are more than just a cheap way for ABC and parent company Disney to cash-in on the success of the show. They are fantastic mystery novels in their own right.

Deadly Heat picks up right where Frozen Heat left off. Nikki Heat has found the people responsible for her mother’s murder and is on a mission to bring them all to justice. Having dealt with her mother’s murderer, Nikki now sets her sights on the people who might be able to tell her why her mother was murdered. But Nikki is interrupted by her duties as an NYPD cop, and when it’s discovered that a serial killer is on the loose, New York’s finest turn to Nikki to track him down. Nikki wavers as she is torn between her desire to hunt the people who had her mother killed while the trail is still hot and her duty to the people of New York as a cop. But she had better make up her mind quickly as the serial killer has named her as his/her next target. Good thing Nikki has her colleagues who have her back, and her ruggedly handsome professional and romantic partner, Jameson Rook, at her side.

Deadly Heat is definitely an improvement over Frozen Heat. The plot pacing is back on track this time around and the book doesn’t suffer from the two cases running side-by-side. The characters are just as lovable as always, and reminiscent of their influences on Castle. It is still somewhat difficult not imagining the actors from the TV series as the characters in the Nikki Heat books, but that isn’t anything to worry about as the characters themselves are more than capable of standing on their own. The story is just as frenetic as an episode of Castle with plenty of red-herrings, false trails, and setback to keep the reader guessing right up to the (as always) action-packed conclusion.

The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright. Published by Shadow Mountain.

The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright. Published by Shadow Mountain.

Switching gears from mystery and the speculative, the last book I have for this post is The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright. I picked up this book at last year’s BEA as I like to keep up with what the publishers back home in Utah are doing. I found myself pleasantly surprised by The Rent Collector as it is an ambitious work of literary fiction that is based on actual circumstances found in Cambodia where the novel is set.

Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, are scavengers living on the cusp of Stung Meanchey, a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital and largest city, Phnom Penh. Each day, they traverse the hazards of the dump collecting items to sell or have recycled in order to eke out an existence for them and their sickly young son. Hovering over their heads is the eponymous rent collector, an old, bitter drunkard who patrols the property demanding that Sang Ly and her neighbors pay their rent and threatening to turn them out of their meager homes if they don’t. This is difficult for Sang Ly and Ki Lim as they try to make enough to provide for themselves and for their unhealthy child. Sang Ly realizes that the caustic atmosphere of Stung Meanchey is setting her family on course to destruction, and knows that they must escape somehow. One day, she finds a children’s picture book while scavenging the dump. Though Sang Ly is illiterate, she takes the book home hoping that her son may take an interest in the pictures. This gives Sang Ly an idea. Perhaps she can escape Stung Meanchey by becoming literate, and she finds an unlikely teacher. However, being literate may not be enough to undo the damage already done by Stung Meanchey to Sang Ly and her family, and, when push comes to shove, Sang Ly must rely on her own tenacity if they are going to survive.

The Rent Collector is definitely a good read, with great characters whose tragic struggles and lives are so different from our own. I can heartily recommend it as being worth the time of anyone that may be interested in reading it. However, I don’t think The Rent Collector quite succeeds in its literary aspirations. Part of this is due to the fact that the novel is being narrated in English though the characters are actually thinking and speaking in Cambodian. Wright mostly does a good job easing readers into the gaps created by the different languages, but it is still confusing at times and readers must simply shrug their shoulders and continue reading. The book also comes to a bit of a contrived conclusion. Far be it from me to want a happy ending, however, it seems that Sang Ly’s quest for literacy isn’t what saves her family so much as the extenuating circumstances that occur while she is working toward her literacy goal. This turns the importance of literacy, one of the central themes of The Rent Collector, into more of a plot device than something of real, useful value.

Phew! That’s it for the post. I still have enough books to write about for probably two more posts, so I’ll get to those next time.

Catching up on Bookses

It’s hard to write about books when most that you read are published by the company that employs you. But even then I’m way behind in writing about all the books I’ve read since summer. So I’ll get to work catching up. Here we go!

Joyland, by Stephen King. Published by Hard Case Crime.

Joyland, by Stephen King. Published by Hard Case Crime.

To get started, I read my first Stephen King novel last summer, Joyland. As ubiquitous an author as Stephen King is, I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but I was very happy with what I found.

Devin Jones is a college student whose girlfriend has just dumped him. Like a lot of guys that find themselves in Devin’s shoes, he is in complete denial about the breakup and hopes that he’ll reunite with his girlfriend amid clouds and unicorns. But sensing that reality won’t be so kind, Devin takes a job in North Carolina working at a seasonal amusement park called Joyland. While working there, Devin learns of a murder that happened on the haunted house ride years prior and that the ghost of the young woman who was killed haunts the ride. Throughout the course of his summer at Joyland, Devin makes new friends, saves lives (a couple of times), and also meets a mysterious and seemingly cold-hearted single mother and her sickly son. Yet Devin continues to dwell on the murder that happened in the haunted house and tries to figure out who the perpetrator was. However, Devin is just a naive young man, and the harsh reality of the murder and the demands of the real world could be too much for him to handle.

Simply put, Joyland is one of the best books I read last year. Devin is an extremely likable protagonist and narrator whose struggles to grow into adulthood are as real as they are sincere, and his distinctive voice reads with the freshness of some of the best YA novels out there. It also became clear to me that Stephen King is such a ubiquitous author for a reason; the dude can write an engrossing page-turner while not neglecting the little details. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen characters develop believably with such ease. Those little details and the fantastic characters were the cherry on top of a fantastic whodunnit.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. Published by Scribner.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. Published by Scribner.

I don’t know that there is much that I can add to what has already been said about this book, or Hemingway in general. His novels, and other writings are Modernist classics, and widely read by scholars and recreational readers everywhere. My own Hemingway readership is sadly lacking. Though I enjoy what I’ve read very much, I can only take so much of Hemingway’s terse writing style at a time. So far, I’ve read a pretty significant amount of his short stories, A Farewell to Arms (so amazing!), and now For Whom the Bell Tolls. In this novel, Hemingway again takes us to war-torn Europe where another good fight is being fought; the Spanish Civil War in this case.

Robert Jordan is a pro-Communist American, and a university Spanish instructor who leaves the U.S. to go fight for his cause in Spain where he serves as a demolitions specialist in the International Brigades. At the start of the novel, Jordan is dispatched into the mountains where he is to rendezvous with a small guerrilla outfit and demolish a crucial bridge that will prevent the forces of Francisco Franco from resupplying their army for a major, decisive engagement that is being planned. When he arrives at the guerrilla camp, he finds a colorful cast of characters from the cowardly leader of the band, Pablo, and his no-nonsense wife, Pilar, to the loyal and brave Anselmo, and, finally, the beautiful, young Maria. It’s up to Robert Jordan to get this ragtag band organized and ready to assist in his task of demolishing the bridge. He faces many complications in the few days during which the novel takes place, and none more distracting than his budding relationship with Maria. Like other Hemingway stories I’ve read, Robert Jordan and Maria crash into each other with the force of a tsunami breaking on high cliffs. Fast, hard, and passionate. But Robert Jordan has a duty to perform and a cause that is greater than himself, and war is no place to fall in love.

While I don’t think it reaches the devastating masterpiece that is A Farewell to Arms, I did find For Whom the Bell Tools composed of the same hard thematic material as its counterpart, such as the love/war dichotomy I’ve already mentioned. Hemingway does a great job of bringing these themes to the reader’s mind through the ruminations of the various characters and the stories of their lives. And while the ending doesn’t pack the same punch as A Farewell to Arms, Robert Jordan’s fate is no less compelling.

The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime.

The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime.

Another one from Hard Case Crime! As the cover clearly states, The Cocktail Waitress is the recently discovered final novel of James M. Cain, one of hard-boiled pulps’ biggest names. It had some decent media coverage, and was released in hardcover back in the latter part of 2012, and it piqued my interest. I received the book while I was reading Joyland, but, while Joyland was one of the best books I read in 2013, unfortunately The Cocktail Waitress was one of the worst.

Joan Medford is a recently widowed mother whose husband died under questionable circumstances in a car accident. The police suspect that Joan somehow had something to do with it since her marriage was on the rocks. Unfortunately for Joan, now that she is husband-less, jobless, broke, and under suspicion for (at worst) foul play, she is no longer able to take care of her young son by herself, and so she sends him off to live with some crazy extended family while she tries to find a job, and, more importantly, a new husband so that she can once again care for her son. She gets a job as a titular cocktail waitress where she has the pleasure of meeting two potential husband candidates, one older but wealthy, and the other handsome, ambitious and scheming. A love triangle ensues, and Joan finds herself in many odd situations with her two new squeezes, but she can only have one husband, and Death has yet to be satiated.

Regardless of the fact James M. Cain died before completing the novel, The Cocktail Waitress was a big disappointment. Whether or not Joan is to blame for any of the deaths that happen in the novel is never definitively established, and readers are left to decide for themselves. But the circumstances are so coincidental that it seems hard to believe that she didn’t have at least some hand in them. Leaving it to the readers to decide would have been a nice touch if it weren’t for the fact that Joan is not a compelling or interesting narrator. This coupled with the flatness of the rest of the characters and the mundane and boring plot lead to a sloppy read that begins and ends nowhere.

A Blind Goddess: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery, by James R. Benn. Published by Soho Press.

A Blind Goddess: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery, by James R. Benn. Published by Soho Press.

I received James R. Benn’s A Blind Goddess at BEA this year from the fine folks at Soho Press. A good mystery is always welcome on my shelf and I was interested in seeing what Soho has to offer. I was particularly interested in two of the books they had (I’ll get to the other one in my next post). While interning at a small mystery publisher, I learned of the historical mystery sub-genre, and what better place to set a mystery than the time period that defined the world as we know it: World War II. A Blind Goddess is the eighth in Benn’s Billy Boyle World War II series, and it’s easy to see why the series has had such longevity.

Newly promoted Captain Billy Boyle hails from Boston and is the cop-kid of a member of Boston’s finest. Billy himself currently works as a detective for the U.S. Army helping the British solve criminal cases that involve U.S. troops in some way. Just prior to his going on a well-deserved leave, Billy is contacted by an estranged childhood friend, a Black soldier serving in the 617th Tank Destroyers unit, Sergeant Eugene “Tree” Jackson. Tree asks for Billy’s help when a member of the 617th is charged with kidnapping a young English girl. And to make matters worse, an accountant has been murdered in the same village and the U.S. Army may be somehow involved in the murder. Billy doesn’t lament the loss of his vacation, and dives straight into both cases hoping to bring resolution to the involved parties as well as mend bridges with his old friend, Tree. His time is short, however, and it’s only a matter of time before Tree’s pal is punished for his supposed involvement in the kidnapping, and before the murderer strikes again.

It’s always a little disorienting jumping into an established series and trying to get to know characters that have developed over the course of many previous books, but Benn does a great job of setting up the backstory and characters for new readers and I was able to jump right into A Blind Goddess without any trouble. The characters were well written and developed nicely throughout the book, and the mysteries Billy faces kept me guessing until the reveal. The book also tackles a big, shameful issue from America’s past: racial segregation, and the relations between whites and blacks during wartime. Benn’s writing doesn’t tackle the issue in a deep, or complex manner, but Benn does a good job presenting it for what it was as well as the hatred that racial segregation created and exacerbated. A Blind Goddess is a solid mystery even if it wears its themes on its sleeve. I can’t say that I’ll ever seek out another Billy Boyle book, but if another were to come my way I would happily read it.

That’s all for now! I’m about six months behind in my book entries, so I do have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll write about four more books I’ve read in the next post. Until then!

Post-Apocalyptic Vampires, World War II, and The Escapist: Man Books Are Awesome!

As always, I’ve read a lot of books the past few months. Most have been books published by my company and I’ve already stated before that I won’t really talk about those books, so that leaves me with only a few books I’ve read since Fall that I can actually write about. So here is a small selection of what I’ve read since my last book post!

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin. Published by Ballantine Books.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin is the first book that I read this year. The Passage is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi epic that tells the story of a small band of humans struggling to survive in a world overrun by genetically mutated humans that are very similar to what we’d call vampires.

F.B.I. agent Brad Wolgast recruits death-row inmates to be genetic guinea pigs in an underground research lab in Colorado where scientists are working on a virus that could be the path to immortality. After recruiting the twelfth death-row test subject, Wolgast is contacted by his superiors and instructed to secure the thirteenth and final subject. But the thirteenth is no hardened criminal, she is a little girl named Amy who was recently abandoned by her mother. Wolgast had misgivings about the nature of the research happening in Colorado, but when he receives the orders to secure Amy as a test subject he takes it upon himself to be her guardian. However, Wolgast’s chivalrous intentions do not prevent Amy from becoming the thirteenth test subject at the facility in Colorado where the death-row inmates have been mutated into inhuman, telepathic monsters. Toward the end of Amy’s “treatment” the other test subjects stage a violent escape from the facility and Wolgast and Amy barely escape with their lives. Wolgast and Amy run to Oregon and hole up in an abandoned cabin in the mountains while the rest of the world falls into chaos as the virus spreads, turning more and more people into vampires. While in Oregon, Wolgast begins to understand that Amy is the key to humanity’s survival, but despite the happy contentedness of their lives in the mountains, Wolgast knows that nothing gold can stay, and eventually Amy must face the shattered remains of the world on her own.

…That’s just the prologue. The story picks up again about a hundred years later when the seemingly immortal Amy finds her way to a small colony of survivors in California and the rest of the story picks up from there.

The premise and the story are both engaging, and while it is hardly an original post-apocalyptic story, the characters, setting and plot are created with a lot of care and I wanted to know what would happen to everyone as I kept reading. Unfortunately, there is a point where characters are given too much care in their creation and The Passage is guilty of such a charge. At times there are pages, and pages of interior monologue that explains every little detail and emotion of a given character’s life. The prologue is a great case in point as it is book length on its own. This coupled with Cronin’s slow-paced writing style make this read oftentimes tedious especially considering the fact the edition of The Passage that I read is 871 pages! Luckily some action happens later in the book, and these scenes stand in stark contrast to the emotional baggage that fills most of the pages of The Passage. Cronin is definitely capable of writing riveting action sequences. I didn’t want to put the book down when I reached an action scene, but they are few and far between. At one point Cronin even forgoes writing an action sequence and instead details in retrospect what could have otherwise been an intense scene. But Cronin is more concerned about his characters’ emotions, and they have a lot of them, to the point that the book suffers and is oftentimes boring. Still, the world of The Passage has caught my attention, and I’m interested in seeing what happens so I may pick up the sequel, The Twelve, sometime later.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Codename Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Published by Hyperion.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein is the story of two British friends during World War II. Maddie is a tomboy, who knows more about engines and machinery than most boys her age. Shortly before World War II, Maddie begins training to be a pilot, and when the war breaks out she volunteers to help on airfields and later she also ferries planes and troops across England. During this time, she meets Julie, a Scottish aristocrat working as a radio operator. The two become friends, and in the meantime Julie’s fluency in French and German is noticed by a British secret agent of some sort, and Julie becomes an agent herself. Later in the war, the need for British pilots reaches the point that Maddie is allowed to fly a mission over France. Once in the air she learns that this mission is to drop Julie into occupied France where she will work as a spy behind enemy lines. But Julie makes an error that blows her cover and is captured by the Germans. She is imprisoned and interrogated. To make matters worse, Maddie is shot down over France on her return flight, but is luckily able to join up with the French resistance. Learning that Julie has been captured, Maddie and her French allies plan a rescue mission, but the odds are definitely not in their favor.

I was originally turned off by Code Name Verity. Having read a lot of YA novels over the last year, I’ve grown kind of tired of the snarky, sarcastic narrators that seem ubiquitous in the genre. But this voice is the only thing Julie really has left while imprisoned and it is her best and only way to maintain any strength in her situation. So I guess I can forgive the sarcasm this time, and Julie’s story is pretty compelling although it is a little disorienting and slow-starting at the onset. The narration duties switch to Maddie midway through the book, and though the story isn’t as narratively complex it is still just as engaging as Maddie works to rescue Julie. On top of all that, the story builds to an unexpected and riveting conclusion. I can’t spoil it, but the ending was more than enough to make Code Name Verity worth reading.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Published by Random House.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon is the fictional story of two cousins of Jewish descent who break into the fledgling comic book industry in the late 1930s. Sam Clayman lives in Brooklyn and is the son of Jewish immigrants. He has become completely enamored with those newfangled comic books and the superheroes that populate them, and dreams of breaking into the business and making “a whole lot of dough.” Sam isn’t sure how to accomplish this until his cousin, Josef Kavalier, arrives on Sam’s doorstep after fleeing Europe due to increasing anti-Semitic laws and restrictions. Joe left his family behind in Europe, and his single purpose upon arriving in the U.S. is making enough money to secure his family’s escape. When Sam learns that Joe actually spent two years in art school and is an adept artist, he sees his opportunity. Upon seeing that Joe and Sam may be able to deliver a character along the lines of Superman, Sam’s boss, the owner of a novelty company, agrees to see what the two young Jewish boys can do. Together, Sam and Joe create a superhero,The Escapist, and their creation becomes a smash hit. But as their bank accounts begin to fill with their salaries (and the small royalties that they were able to negotiate for their creations), the two boys learn that living in “escapist” fantasies and having a lot of money does not protect them from the harsh realities of life.

This is an amazing book. My description makes it sound far more simple than it really is. The depth of the characters, the complexity of their relations, their successes and tragedies, are all keenly depicted and it is hard for the reader not to empathize with all that happens in the lives of these two young men. The narrative is very nearly epic (and yes I know that word is overused, but it is the correct adjective in this case) in its scope, yet still manages to maintain its immediacy and tightness throughout most of the book. The last hundred or so pages are the only part where the narrative begins to meander, and it was much slower reading than the rest of the book. Still, even though the immediacy and tension were not as prominent in these last hundred pages, they did manage to bring the story of the various characters to a satisfying conclusion. I savored reading this book. Of all the books I’ve read over the last year since finishing my master’s degree, I think this is probably the only book I’ll consider reading a second time. I’ll definitely be checking out more Michael Chabon books in the future as well.

A Plethora of Books

Maybe I should be out shopping for apartment necessities like a real bed, a desk, a microwave, and so on, but instead here I am thinking I need to update my blog. The hiatus is over! I’ve found a place to live and now have internet, so the blog is back. Posts may be a little sporadic until I get all of the aforementioned necessities, but I’ll get posting again.

So, over the last week I’ve had a lot of time to read. My commute on the subway is quite long now, and when I’ve come back to the apartment I haven’t been able to do much else being internet and TV-less. I’ve basically read almost four books just this week. One of them was a book published by my company and I’ve decided that it is best I don’t talk about Penguin books on the blog. All others are fair game though.

That being said, I still have four books to talk about. Long post ahead, but without further ado:

Are You My Mother? Story and art by Alison Bechdel. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

First up is Alison Bechdel‘s Are You My Mother. I read her previous book, Fun Home, in a non-fiction literature course as an undergrad and loved it. So when I saw this while browsing Forbidden Planet, I only slightly hesitated to pick it up. Perhaps I should have hesitated more. Where Fun Home was a wonderful, humorous, emotionally charged story of Bechdel’s difficult relationship with her father modeled by the myth of IcarusAre You My Mother? is a chore by comparison. As one might guess from the title, this graphic memoir is about Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, and Bechdel spends most of the book trying to understand this relationship and the emotional effects it has had on her life. That’s all fine and good, but where Fun Home succeeded with the Icarus myth, Are You My Mother? falls flat because Bechdel replaces Icarus with psychoanalytic theory. Great for those familiar with knowledge of psychoanalytic literary criticism, but not so great for readers to trace the emotional nuances of a mother/daughter relationship. Everytime there was a truly great emotional breakthrough, Bechdel started talking about theory and stifled the impact of that breakthrough for readers. Are You My Mother? isn’t completely without merit though. Despite the tedious, page-after-page discussion of theory, Bechdel’s art is just as charming as it was in Fun Home and, really, who in their right mind can fully comprehend one’s relationship with their mother? Yea, it’s hard.

I don’t recommend Are You My Mother? for any but the most studious of English majors. Any other reader, and probably a lot of the English majors, will most likely tire of it very quickly.

Gold, by Chris Cleave. Published by Simon & Schuster

We were given a copy of Gold, by Chris Cleave, during the NYU Summer Publishing Institute. Gold is the story of two Olympic level female cyclists, Kate and Zoe, who are best friends while also being fierce rivals. Kate  has been “cheated” out of Olympic Gold on two occasions, first after the birth of her daughter, and again when that daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Now Kate is thirty-two years old, and has one last chance for those Olympic gold medals at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. But with the resurgence of her daughter’s cancer, fate seems to continue to conspire against Kate’s chances. Meanwhile, Zoe, also thirty-two is going through personal crises of her own. She has lived her entire life for cycling and that life is about to come crashing down with the end of the Olympics. She has won Gold before, but the uncertainty of her life post-racing forces old, heartbreaking memories to rise threatening her concentration and resolve. Then, the IOC decides only one of the two women can compete in the 2012 games, so Kate and Zoe must fight to overcome their personal struggles for their last shot at Gold.

I enjoyed Gold. Chris Cleave is an extremely capable author who can write about tragedy without beating his readers over the head, and then turn around on the next page and write some laugh-out-loud humor. The characterizations are also very, very good. Zoe, Kate’s husband, Jack, and their daughter Sophie are all depicted wonderfully. Sophie may be a bit static, but that is okay because her imagination is vivid and she’s such a little (Storm)trooper. Unfortunately, Kate, who you’d think is the protagonist after reading the first few sections, takes a backseat to her husband and Zoe, and remains there for most of the book. The story takes some surprising, and perhaps laughably unbelievable twists in the book’s latter half, but it was hard not to stay engrossed with the characters through the conclusion.

I still can’t recommend Gold for everyone. The sections featuring Sophie are cute, but may be very difficult reading for those who’ve ever known a sick kid. Also, Cleave uses the f-word far more liberally than I was comfortable with. I mean, I know the guy is British, but seriously. Still, if none of the above bothers you it is worth a read.

Fifty-to-One, by Charles Ardai. Published by Hard Case Crime.

I raved about Hard Case Crime in a previous post about Dead Street by Mickey Spillane. I wanted to read another, but not really knowing where to start I picked up Fifty-to-One by the man behind the Hard Case Crime imprint, Charles ArdaiFifty-to-One was written to celebrate the publication of Hard Case Crime’s fiftieth book, but it is written under the premise that Hard Case Crime was founded 50 years prior in the 1950s by a ne’er do well hoping to get rich off the popularity of pulp crime novels. Charley Borden, the fictional publisher at Hard Case Crime, is looking for a big hit. Something that will put Hard Case Crime, an obviously small imprint, on par with bigger pulp publishers. He asks Tricia (aka Trixie), a young club dancer who came to New York from her home in Aberdeen, South Dakota with dreams of writing for The New Yorker, to get the scoop on a real-life mob story. Tricia tries to get a non-fiction story, but can’t make it work, so she comes up with a humdinger about a fictional low level mobster stealing 3 million dollars from the real, and very dangerous mob boss, Sal Niccolazzo. By pure coincidence, the totally untrue story penned by Tricia bears a striking resemblance to an actual theft, and Uncle Nick (Niccolazzo), wanting to know who robbed him, sends some boys to knock on Hard Case Crime’s door.

Fifty-to-One is a fun romp through 1950s New York. What I liked most is that Fifty-to-One is an ode to the pulp crime novel. Most of the conventions are there even as it breaks the mold with its female protagonist and non-detective/police characters. All of the characters are fun, and their depictions are spot-on. Just don’t go into it expecting the next Charles Dickens, because literary it is not, but who needs that stuffy stuff when you have a fun crime novel? Not me. The only complaint I have about Fifty-to-One is that it deviates from the regular, 200-220 page pulp crime novel and is instead a meaty 330 pages long. That additional length creates the need for even more twists and turns and I found myself thinking, when I was around page 280, that the book could’ve been much better had it been 100 pages shorter. Aside from that, it s a great, light read.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. Published by Vintage. Originally published by McSweeney’s Books.

This is another free book I received as part of the NYU program. I had to choose one book from many options in this case, and when my fellow students snatched all the copies of my first choice, I had to go with something else. I was intrigued by the cover, and so I chose Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. I’m actually really happy I ended up with Zeitoun, otherwise I probably never would have read it.

Zeitoun is the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian born Muslim living in New Orleans when it was struck by Katrina in 2005. Zeitoun, a hardworking, down-to-earth man, doesn’t think the hurricane will be as bad as the press makes it out to be. On top of that, he has many responsibilities in New Orleans as the boss of his own contracting company and as a landlord. With all these responsibilities demanding his nearly perpetual attention, he stays in New Orleans while his wife and children flee to Baton Rouge. He spends the week following the storm living in a tent on the roof of his garage and paddling around the flooded city in a secondhand canoe he purchased from a former client. Zeitoun helps those in need by offering what assistance he can, and chooses to stay in the city despite the urgings of his friends and family, who he is able to contact through a miraculously working landline at one of his rental properties, to leave. Zeitoun witnesses many things during that week both horrible and hopeful. But not even a flooded New Orleans can prepare him when he, his friends Nasser and Todd, and a stranger named Ronnie are arrested as terrorist suspects. Now Zeitoun, an honest, industrious man, must unjust imprisonment if he hopes to ever see his family again.

Zeitoun is easily the best of the books I’ve read over the last week, and probably this summer. While it is non-fiction, Dave Eggers deftly makes the book read far more like a novel than most novels. Zeitoun and his wife Kathy are depicted with all the care of a good novelist, and they leap off the page to capture the hearts and minds of the reader as they endure their unbelievable trials. Some of the reviews quoted in the front of the book say things like, “Zeitoun is a story about the Bush administration’s two most egregious policy disasters…” Maybe that is the case, but the real story here is about a faithful man and his family struggling against overwhelming adversity.

Though there are some truly horrific events that happen in Zeitoun, this one I can’t recommend enough. It is powerful, thought-provoking, and completely engrossing. And it’s hard to deny the pure visceral pleasure of gliding over flooded streets in a small canoe with Zeitoun.

Unfortunately, it appears Zeitoun himself has become another person in the last few years and was recently arrested for beating Kathy, now his ex-wife, earlier this summer. On top of that, he’s now facing murder solicitation charges for plotting to have Kathy, her son from a previous marriage, and another man killed. All who know Zeitoun are dumbstruck that he would commit such atrocities, but perhaps he was changed more deeply and irrevocably by the horrors he faced post-Katrina than anyone anticipated. A sad twist in a powerful story.

Well, that did turn out to be a long post, but I’m glad to have it out of the way. I think I have mostly Penguin books waiting on the backburner, so I may not talk about books for a while. In the meantime, I’ll find something else to talk about.

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