Monday, September 29, 2014

TATIANA by Martin Cruz Smith (fic)

This is the first book I have read by Martin Cruz Smith.  I know he has quite a following and his books are usually, if not always, on the best seller list.   If you have read his crime novels before, you will know that his detective hero is Arcady Renko a Senior Investigator in the Moscow prosecutor's office.  Mysteries of the thriller genre often feature a hero cop who is damaged in some way or depressed and trying to work out issues in their personal lives.  Arcady is also of this mode. He is a chain smoker and like other fiction detectives is obsessive about the cases he works.

The story begins with a cyclist who is a brilliant translator who has invented a code that appears to be a series of doodles; he writes all his notes in this code.  The translator was working with a mixed group of politicians, gangsters, and crooked businessmen who were formulating a secret deal taking place in Kaliningrad.  The fate of this translator, an avid cyclist, is the catalyst which begins the action.  His fate becomes tied to that of a Moscow investigative journalist, Tatiana Petrovna who has ferreted out the deal.  Breaking the code in the translator's notebook is important in solving the case for Arcady.  His forster son, a chess master, and son's girlfriend lend a clever hand in helping to solve the mystery and find themselves in danger because of it.

I don't want to give away any of the plot,but know that it concerns the Russian mafia, a body missing from the morgue, demonstrations,  political corruption and other events tied to the Putin-era.  Cruz  Smith has used some thinly veiled references in this book to real events in Russia in the recent past.

This type of book is not my favorite read, but it did keep me interested enough to read it quickly.  Renko is likable enough, though most of the characters are one-dimentional.  I would say if you enjoy crime novels, this is good enough for a Saturday evening at home, but not up to the page-turners written by recent Scandinavian writers of mysteries.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

EMPIRE OF THE SUN by JG Ballard (fic)

After a discussion with my son about JG Ballard, he kindly sent me this book knowing I would enjoy it more than the bleak dystopian novels Ballard is known for.  The novel was written in 1984 and has constantly been in print since then.  You may be familiar with the movie which has softened some of the very tough passages in the book.

Ballard was born and brought up in Shanghai (his father was a chemist for a British company) in the very British area known as the Shanghai International Settlement.  Even the imposing houses were copied from British country homes. Ballard draws on his own youthful experiences in this semi-autobiographical novel. The international crowd living in the fancy suburb was still carrying on as if they were in Europe even as the Japanese invade Shanghai during World War II. The contrast between the British going to a costume party on the eve of war and their being driven through the streets to interment camps the following day is startling.

 The young hero, Jim, was a mixture of precocious and naif.  As the book progresses, his character grows in strength and understanding of the true nature of men in war.  When Jim is first brought to the camp called Lunghua, he is convinced that things would get back to normal when the war has ended.  Toward the end of the novel Jim realizes that the world has changed forever and there is no returning to the sheltered live he had lived. Throughout the book, Ballard uses inversion and contrast to give forceful clarity to the feelings Jim and other characters are having.  Jim's character grows in strength and understanding of the nature of men at war as he spends four years in the camp.  Another lesson Jim learned was caring for others.  At first Jim saw opportunity in running errands and cadging food for others.  It was done with a slyness looking for what he could get in return.  In contrast,there is a lovely scene toward the end of the novel when Jim is compassionately caring for Mr. Maxted, an old family friend who is dying.  The narrator states, he finally realized that caring for others is the same as being cared for yourself.

There are a number of horrific scenes of death and suffering of the western prisoners.  Powerful and realistic scenes occur all through the novel.  As I read I could clearly picture the bleakness of the land and the destruction of the countryside around Shanghai which became an empty city of ghosts of its past splendor.  In contrast to the starkness of Jim's surroundings, Ballard uses bright sunlight which illuminates a number of scenes.  One takes place in an unused Olympic Stadium when Jim is tending to Mr. Maxted.  The Japanese knowing they would lose the war, have marched the prisoners out of the camp through hideous heat and dust into the stadium.  There they are left to die and tend to themselves.  Jim sees a fierce brightness in the sky obliterating all color for some moments, and he is later convinced he has seen the atom bomb that leveled Nagasaki when he hears people speaking about it.  Jim has other enlightened moments, one important one takes place as the war is ended and he tends to a dying Japanese pilot.  Jim looks at his hands in the bright sunlight with the dreary dark camp behind him, and he realizes that human hands can be used to save people or destroy them. He begins to understand the surrealism of war.

Besides Jim there are many memorable characters in the story.  Most modeled on real people, some are good like the brave doctor who never flags in his care of the wounded; some selfish like Basie who teaches Jim to grab what he can, which in a strange way, helped keep Jim alive.

As the story nears its end, Jim is disoriented and baffled by its sudden outcome.  He wanders back to the camp looking for the security he found there in the midst of its squalor. He had a place there, he knew how he fit in there.  Now it seemed no one wanted or cared about him.  He soon discovers the secure world he had begun to build for himself had disappeared.

Ballard is an exquisite writer.  I was thoroughly engrossed by the novel, more so knowing it was based on the author's experiences as a boy.  I thought about it and what it told us about humans for weeks after I read the last page.  I highly recommend this book, though it is difficult in its realism.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

DIRTY LOVE by Andre Dubus III (fic)

It is usually best when an author writes about an area or culture that is familiar, rather than one that exitsts only in the imagination. Andre Debus's collection of four novellas takes place in an area that he is very familiar with, as he lives nearby the Newburyport/Amesbury neighborhoods he writes about. You may remember Dubus as the author of The House of Sand and Fog a well received novel that was made into a movie.  He is a gifted writer of love and reality; his characters expose their inner lives in ways that leave the reader acutely feeling their anxiety.  Dubus writes honest stories with characters the reader readily relates to.  You may think, "yes, I know that person, that's the guy or woman down the street.

The four stories in Dirty Love are lightly connected.  You may catch a character or place that has appeared marginally in the previous story.  Each main character is at a place in his/her life that could be a turning point, a chance to change or not.  One story is about a lonely overweight single woman who longs to be like her married friends talking about their children and marriages.  When the opportunity is there for her, does she take the step or not.  In another story a man named Mark who is the managewr of a software company discovers his wife of 20 years is cheating on him.   He hires a detective to follow her.  Mark is frustrated by his desire and inability to regain his former secure life.
A third story concerns a weak bartender named Robert who is living on past laurels of his college years, unable to accept the fact that he is a failed poet.  The final tale, bearing the same name as the title of the book is about a teenaged girl who is mired in self-distructive behavior.  She is involved in on-line sexting that has gone viral.  Her salvation might or might not be through an eighty year old grand-uncle who has lived through a crisis of his own and learned life's answers that the others are still searching for. The mutual affection between the girl, Devon, and her uncle may be the only true love shown in the book.

Each of these stories leaves the reader feeling sympathy and frustration for the characters.  Dubus's settings are as real as his characters.  You know you have been there on New England's north shore.  I recommend this book to all who enjoy excellent writing.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

THE SLEEPWALKERS by Christopher Clark (non-fic)

How Europe Went to War in 1914 is the subtitle of Christopher Clark's thorough examination of the causes and actions leading up to WWI.  The work and scholarship that went into the writing of this weighty tome is more than impressive.  It is almost 700 pages of careful research.  We all know that WWI was precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  He was the heir to the Hapsburg Empire and was thought, by those allied to Russia, to be a puppet of Wilhelm II of Germany.  Within 10 days, Russia had taken up arms in support of Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire who were allied with Germany.  By the next month, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire) were lined up against the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia and later Japan, Italy and Romania).

Clark begins his history much earlier, taking us back to 1903.  His story opens with the murder of Alexander I of Serbia by a terrorist group called The Blackhand.  Thus begins one of many parallels to our world today.  As we see, the Middle East and the whole region of central and Eastern Europe was in turmoil from this period onward.  The Slavic countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Serbs, Slovaks and Croats, were all under the hand of the detested Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Nationalistic factions dedicated to the overthrow of the Empire were springing up all over this area.  The Ottoman Empire which was crumbling was already involved in the Balkan Wars where Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece were taking pieces of their territory, and was also busy on the Eastern front where the Arab nations were doing the same.

As Clark tells us the changes in our own world have altered our way of looking at the events of 1914.  He contends it is much more complicated than just blaming Germany for the war.  He states: One could even say that July 1914 is less remote from us--less illegible--now than it was in the 1980s.  Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers--a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.

This book tells the story of how war came to continental Europe and its central argument is that the events leading to WWI only make sense when we look at the decisions and varied paths taken by the leaders of Europe. As an example, Britain was more frightened of war with Russia than war with Germany. This played out in her alliance with Russia.  The complication of family relations through royal marriages also contributed to the confusion.

If you have an interest in this period of history, than Clark's book is a must for your reference bookshelf.  It has the added advantage of being a well-written account of a fascinating time with numerous connections to our world today. I now view WWI in a different light.