Monday, January 31, 2011

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Great novels expose us to ideas, places or experiences that we may not otherwise know about or have the ability to access.  The new novel, You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, is eye-opening and a must read for anyone who wants to understand what it means to live a military life.

In 2001, when the armed forces were sent abroad to fight our wars against terror, the families of our armed service professionals were left behind--left behind to raise their children, deal with their illnesses and manage the day to day challenges of family life.  Alone.  Loneliness and longing envelop everyday existence.  Then, when the professionals come home, the reunions are often challenging.  A sign by the gates of Fort Hood warns, "You've Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming."

This series of loosely interwoven short stories was eye opening for me.  In one story, a woman must deal with her husband's infidelity.  In another, a cancer patient must deal with the results of a critical test and an unruly teenager.  In another, a warrior can't speak about the atrocities he has seen.  Finally, in one that I certainly can relate to, a New York City investment banker stoked with the idealism of fighting for freedom leaves his home and profession to enlist. 

The stories are compelling and piercing.  Fallon does not sensationalize the tragedies and challenges.  She expertly takes us into the lives of the soldiers and their families and friends and shows us the costs and burdens of our wars.  The writing is terse and loaded with tension.  While the stories themselves made me question whether we do enough for the soldiers that are deployed to protect our freedom, Fallon does not offer political views.  The stories speak for themselves.

Recommendation: I really enjoyed this (and I did not expect to).  It is a short and easy read but very powerful and compelling.  It will leave you sharing the families' sadness and wondering whether we do enough for our veterans

Author interview below.

Other reivews:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Box 21 by Roslund and Hellstrom

For those that could not get enough of Stieg Larsson's trilogy (see my note below), Roslund and Hellstrom are billed as the next Swedish phenomenon.  Their newest book, 3 Seconds, is being heavily promoted as the next of kin to Larsson.  The critics, readers and collectors have received the book well.  It is atop my nightstand stack.

Larsson is the best known of the Scandinavian crime novelists but there are other prominent ones, such as Henning Mankell, the creator of Wallander. Wallander is featured in several novels and is also the name of a PBS Mystery series, which is a must for any mystery fan.  The Scandinavian genre is characterized by sex crimes, human trafficking, violence against women, corruption and social critiques. The genre leaders write fast paced and exciting thrillers.

I started with their first novel, Box 21, to meet the characters and see what the series is about.  Roslund and Hellstrom fit the genre well and the acclaim for their work is fitting. What makes this particular novel work is the authors' backgrounds: Roslund is a journalist and Hellstrom is an ex-criminal.

Box 21 is the story of a veteran detective, Ewert Grens, who is haunted by an accident that occurred 25 years ago that left his wife an invalid.  When Grens arrives at a crime scene, he finds a teenage prostitute (sex slave) nearly beaten to death and another woman who is mentally shattered.  The girls were lured to Sweden and forced into the work as under false pretense and sold as sex slaves.  The novel moves rapidly in action packed bursts between the investigation related to the teenage girls, the reappearance of the criminal responsible for injuring Grens' wife and a new crime scene.

For US readers, the references to Swedish pop culture likely will be missed or not understood.  There are few of them and they will not detract from the story.

Recommendation: Anyone who enjoyed Stieg Larsson will enjoy the works these authors are turning out.  They are exciting, intelligent reads.  The energy they generate will keep you flipping pages.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Video -- "Don't You Eva Interupt Me While I'm Readin' A Book"

Have you ever wanted to be left alone with a book?  This hysterical video has gone viral and is the battle cry of every interrupted reader.  Who said reading is dead?  We now have a spokesman and theme song.  Enjoy!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Serialist by David Gordon

The Serialist is a fun and witty first novel by David Gordon.  The book has been nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel of the year.  It is a great read.

Harry Bloch is a struggling author of mysteries, vampire stories and pornographic tales, all under pen names.  A serial killer on death row approached Harry to ghost write the killer's memoirs.  After several meetings, people Harry interviewed for the memior turn up dead, killed in the same signature style of the serial killer.  Harry is immediatly the prime suspect.  To protect himself, Harry is forced to become an unwilling detective.

For anyone who likes mysteries, especially noir mysteries, this is a terrific new voice.  The novel is loaded with references to great mystery authors and characters such as Edgar Allan Poe, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, PBS mysteries and several others.  The voice is strong and distinct.  The plotting and pace will keep you reading.  Although this is written in the tradition of hardboiled private investigators, Gordon modernizes the characters and the issues.

Recommendation: This page turner is worth a read.  You'll read it quickly on a long cold afternoon or on the beach.  For hardboiled mystery enthusiaists, it is a must.

Author interview here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

The Report is Jessica Francis Kane's first novel.  During WWII, Londoners regularly spent nights in London Underground Tube Stations that were transformed into bomb shelters.  In March 1943, 173 people died in one of those shelters.  No bombs fell that night.  It was one of the worst civilian disasters in London during the war.

The novel is based on this true story and tells us how an East London community suffered through and managed with loss.  In response to a public outcry, a respected magistrate is tasked with writing a report to determine the cause of these deaths.  In the process, he is forced to make difficult judgments.  In a parallel story, a young documentary film maker visits the magistrate to interview him for the 30th anniversary of what was a ground breaking report.

The Report questions hindsight and the revisiting of mistakes.  We have lived through and learned from many of these reports (e.g., The 9/11 Commission Report, The Space Shuttle Challenger Report). At times, they seek to assign blame and at other times they try to teach or simply explain. The book is part of a growing collection of post-9/11 literature that struggles with communal loss and asks questions such as "when engaged in a war, is morale more important than reason?" and "is truth always a noble end in and of itself?"  Kane expertly poses these questions.

Kane provides us with insight into an aspect of WWII that I had not read much about before: how did the war affect the daily lives of Londoners?  She examines the sacrifices they were forced to make.  Although this is a period piece, Kane frames the story in a way that makes the appeal far more universal.

Recommendation: This is a very good book and worth the read.  In this well paced piece, Kane combines excellent literary writing with important universal questions.

The memorial plaque from the station.

Other reviews

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Great House by Nicole Krauss

Great House is Nicole Krauss' highly anticipated 2010 novel.  Earlier in 2010, the New Yorker named Krauss as one of the New Yorker's top 20 writers under 40 (they also included her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer).  This book was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award (the winner was Lord of Misrule). 

Krauss is a fantastic and powerful writer.  Her prose is nearly poetic.  At certain times, I found myself overpowered by her use of language and certain sections difficult to capture.  Maybe that was the point.

The book is a multivoiced narrative about loss.  There are four protagonists, who move seemlessly through time. Each character confronts loss (loss of a wife, a friend or a heritage and the Holocaust).  The voices are (mostly) linked to an object that moves through time and among the narrators.

What we learn from Krauss is that material objects are often displaced and difficult to reassemble.  However, ideas, knowledge, thoughts and belief can and do remain together.

This is not a page turner (nor is it intended to be).  Krauss demands work.  I enjoyed the book but it was not one of my favorites of the year.

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, is a dark comedy that follows the life of Milo Burke, who works for a mediocre university soliciting funds (The Asks).  After being fired and struggling with unemployment, Milo is roped into an Ask from an old friend who has come into money and now Milo has to handle some uncomfortable tasks for his friend.  The book looks at the haves and have nots and the expectations that belong to each.  It attacks political correctness, work, class, child rearing and war.

The Ask was a NYT notable book of 2010.  It is an entertaining commentary about society.
A reading by Lipsyte below.

Why Read

A good friend once challenged me, "Why do you read?  What's the point?"  I considered for a moment creating a mission statement but decided that a Letterman top 10 list would suffice.  The reasons:

1. To learn

2. To visit other worlds

3. To expand our sense of what is possible

4. To seek new things to which we can aspire

5. To find clues and answers to what our lives are meant to be

6. To challenge ourselves and to be changed

7. To participate in the “great conversation”

8. To learn about the human condition

9. To observe beautiful artistry

10. To pass the time

So, why do you read?

Review -- The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Graham Moore's debut novel, The Sherlockian, was good for so many reasons.  Since I was a child, I have loved Sherlock Holmes.  As an adult, I found the world of Sherlock Holmes scholars in which Sherlock Holmes was real and the inconsistencies in the stories provide endless fodder for scholarly articles and debates.  Half of Moore's novel is set in the world of these obsessive scholars.  At a society meeting, a long lost diary of Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) is discovered.  The man who has spent years trying to locate the diary is suddenly found dead on the eve of presenting his findings to the society.  The newest member of the society begins a Sherlock Holmes worthy search for the murderer.

In parallel, Moore tells us the story of a murder investigation conducted by Doyle himself with his sidekick, Dracula's creator, Bram Stoker.  Moore expertly sets this narrative in late Victorian Britain. 

In 2004, the New Yorker published an article about the mysterious death of a Sherlockian scholar, Richard Lancelyn Green.  Moore used that basic story to create the first part of his narrative.  One of the enjoyable parts of this book is how fact and fiction meld, which is exactly what happens in the world of Sherlock Holmes today.

As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I loved the book.  Moore faithfully references the Sherlock Holmes stories (also known as "The Canon") without shmaltzing up the book with all of Holmes' catch phrases. 

The book has appeal to any lover of mysteries, not just Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts.  It has garnered several terrific reviews already.  I am looking forward to Moore's next work.

Great Reads from 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  A fantastic book which is a a series of freestanding short stories that together create a novel. The writing is magnificent and highly readable. Egan experiments with new forms, including an entire chapter written in a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.  The New York Times selected it as one of the five best fiction books of 2010.  Her PBS interview is below.

Room by Emma Donoghue.  The voice in this book is powerful. It is the story, told from a child's perspective, of a boy and his mother being held captive in a room. The child (our narrator) is born in captivity and believes that this room is the entire universe. His mother creates an entire world for him and through him we see her stength and power. It is impossible to put this one down.  It was one of the 2010 Man Booker prize finalists.  The book trailer is below.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  This was labelled as "THE" book of 2010. It made a huge prepublication splash, helped by Franzen's appearance on the cover of Time and photos of President Obama with a reviewer's copy on his Martha's Vineyard vacation.  Franzen is an incredible writer. The book lived up to the hype. The story itself is about a Midwestern family and the concept of freedom. It is very hard to summarize the plot but trust me it is a great book.  A recent interview with Franzen is below.  He comes across as reserved.  The writing is anything but.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.  This was one of my favorite finds of the year.  In each chapter, Rachman tells the story about different people connected to a struggling Roman newspaper printed in English.  The characters are imperfect and their struggle is great to read.  I'm looking forward to his next book.  Rachman should have a bright future.  The NYT review was one of the first and could not have been more generous and dead on.

The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.  If you haven't read these (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), you have missed the publishing phenomenon that rivals Harry Potter.  Larsson was a Swedish writer who died young, leaving these manuscrips behind.  These books have become a literary sensation worldwide and have been mainstays on every bestseller list throughout 2010.

These are thriller mysteries. The writing is fine.  What makes these amazing is the storytelling.  Larsson packs a lot of punch in these books. In these books, Larsson attacks Swedish society, the abuse of women, sexuality, technology and the freedom of the press.  If you haven't read these, you should.  They are great beach / long winter night reads.

The Dragon Tattoo is a free standing book.  The last two continue with the same characters but are really just a single story.

There is a fourth manuscript that exists but it is stuck in litigation between Larsson's family and his long time girlfriend.  NYT story here.  The Swedish movie trailer is below.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  This is a satirical look at life in the near future.  China runs the world.  People are attached to the network, constantly monitoring their coolness factor and credit rating.  It is an excellent book and hysterical.  In June 2010, Shteyngart was named one of the top 20 writers under 40 by New Yorker.  Book trailer below.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question is Howard Jacobson's newest book and the 2010 Man Booker Prize winner. The story begins with three men in London, two of whom are recent widowers coping with their loss. The third, Julian Treslove, has never been married but embraces the opportunity to mourn loss whenever he can. After Treslove shares a dinner with the two widowers, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevick, Treslove is mugged on the streets of London in what he believes may have been an antisemitic attack. Treslove, however, is not Jewish. The mugging is the catalyst for Treslove to explore his belief that he is Jewish. His father played the violin, he likes opera and he is mournful; therefire, he must be a Jew. The novel shares Treslove's exploration of his so-called Jewishness.

One of the widowers, Sevick, a former professor of the Treslove and Finkler, copes with the loss of his beloved and struggles to continue with his life. Finkler, Treslove's peer, is a successful pop philosopher, who struggles with his Jewish identity and what a Jew's relationship should be with other Jews and Israel.

Jacobson raises numerous questions about what it means to be Jewish through his use of humor. ("You say you want to be a Jew -- well the first thing you need to know is that Jewish men don't go out without their wives or girlfriends. Unless they are having an affair. Other than another woman's flat there's nowhere for Jewish men to go.") He tackles the subtle use of Jewish humor, language and mannerisms. Many reviews refer to Jacobson as the British Phillip Roth.

The writing is of course excellent. The themes Jacobson attacks and the way he addresses them make this a worthwhile read.

Other reviews

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reading everywhere

When my wife and I were just dating, several of her friends let her know that they spotted her new boyfriend walking through midtown Manhattan while reading a book. Walking and reading in midtown! Unphased, she replied with a soft shoulder shrug and a smile, "That's him."

When I wake up, I grab my book and read a few pages. On the way to and from work, a few more. On the line at the supermarket or while I'm on hold on the phone. And as I fall asleep, I drop my book on the nightstand.

My book shelves are triple stacked. I follow dozens of book blogs (see the best links on the side). You might say I'm mildly obsessed.

This blog is dedicated to the obsessive reader. Thousands of new books are printed annually. With too many books and too little time, I try to find and read the great ones--the new emerging authors and the old masters. Whether it is on my Kindle, a new hardcover or a used book, I just love to read.

I also love sharing what I am reading with my friends and family. Instead of creating reading lists on Amazon (my favorite bios on Amazon through 2009) or scattering reviews across the web, this blog, Walk With A Book, is my contribution. Enjoy.