Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (2010)

When my excellent friend Corie loaned me Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters (2010), I wasn't entirely sure I'd get into this story of a female American photojournalist in Vietnam. Of course, I should have remembered Corie's track record of book recommendations -- I was quickly engrossed in this one and was carried away by it until the end.

In 1965, after Helen Adams' brother is killed in Vietnam, she drops out of college and with a high school photography class under her belt, decides to travel to Vietnam and cover the war as a freelance photojournalist. A tall blond woman is a unique sight in Saigon, and particularly unusual in the boys club of foreign journalism. Helen makes her share of newbie mistakes, one of which initially appears to be falling into bed with the handsome Pulitzer prize winning bad boy of the bunch, Sam Darrow. After getting brushed off by Darrow, Helen regroups and quickly (honestly maybe a little too quickly) makes a name for herself as a natural photographer who is willing to take risks to bring in the shot. She gets a job as a Life staff photographer and is once again in the orbit of Darrow and his Vietnamese assistant, Linh.

Linh, like many of the Vietnamese assisting the Americans, has had a complicated and tragic life because of the complicated and tragic series of wars in his country. He keeps his feelings and history to himself, for the most part, but his story is slowly revealed over the course of the book, as is his hidden love for Helen that grows even as she and Darrow become inseparable.

Soli starts the book with the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975 as Helen and Linh struggle to escape with their lives and Helen's film, and then drops us back a decade. This structure gives us a unique perspective as we watch the characters move forward to the action at the beginning of the book, and deepens our understanding of their actions. In fact, throughout the book, Soli's biggest strength is her structuring of the plot and her hints and revelations of the past.

Helen Adams, Sam Darrow, and Linh are no cynical Thomas Fowlers, but there is a lot from this expatriate community of journalists that hearkens back to Graham Greene's The Quiet American (in fact, in an early scene, Helen throws her copy of Greene's book in the trash and then decides to read it one more time after it is rescued by her room boy). While Helen and the other characters do lose their idealism and optimism, they also become more a part of the Vietnamese culture than Fowler ever did and never entirely distance themselves from the events surrounding them -- to the extent that they are ultimately nearly destroyed by their inability to isolate themselves.

Soli is a beautiful writer, and this is a well researched and accurate-feeling novel about a country and a war that have been written about many times before. The characters, the romance, and the action are all believable and moving, but her descriptions of the environment and her compassion for all the components of her novel, even the smallest characters or briefest scenes, are part of what really make The Lotus Eaters stand out. Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Huntington, West Virginia "On the Fly" by Harvey Pekar (2011)

I haven't read everything that Harvey Pekar (author of the American Splendor comics) has written, but what I've read I've really liked. So when Dr. M picked up the copy of his most recent (and final, since he sadly died about a year ago) book, the posthumously published and awesomely punctuated Huntington, West Virginia "On the Fly" (2011), I was happy to take a look.

Like his other work, this book consists of vignettes of Pekar's everyday life and some of the stories of people that Pekar has met. In this collection we have the story of "Hollywood Bob" (my favorite) who went from being a small time hood to the successful owner and driver of a limo business; the separate and then together stories of Tunc and Eileen (plus Eileen is a comic book archivist!); the drama behind a local toy store owner's purchase and renovation of a old timey diner; and Pekar's trip to the titular Huntington, West Virginia for a book festival.

Pekar's voice and presence melds with his subject in each story, and the perfectly ordinary events of regular life become a little more interesting through his eyes. This collection is beautifully illustrated by Summer McClinton. Definitely recommended for Pekar fans, and if you aren't a Pekar fan, then what have you been doing with your life?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)

The always amazing Joolie lent me this copy of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000) after I raved so much about liking books with interesting structures like The Cloud Atlas. As always, Joolie was right on target with what I might like.

"The Blind Assassin" in The Blind Assassin is the title of a posthumously published novel by Laura Chase -- a woman who drives off a bridge and dies at the age of 25 on the first page of our book. Our narrator, Iris Chase, is Laura's older sister, and she had the book published after Laura's death. This book follows a young upper-class woman who is having an affair with a fascinatingly poor writer who is wanted by the police for his work with the labor unions. As they lay in bed together, the man spins a science fiction story about the blind assassins for his lover. The Blind Assassin alternates between sections of Laura Chase's novel, the current musings of the elderly Iris, and Iris's memoir of she and Laura's parallel lives.

The structure is obviously the star here, and Atwood expertly intertwines the different facets of the story, perfectly wrapping up all the loose strings by the end. The ending is a little predictable, but it hid itself long enough to be satisfying when it occurred to me. Beyond the structure we have Atwood's cold, distancing, unknowable, and fragile characters (and I mean all that in a good way). Our narrator, the character through whom we see everyone else, is tragically disconnected from everyone else in her life, and because of this distance, we can't ever know the other characters very well. And most of them come off as people I would prefer not to know anyway.

Part of the reason I think I responded so much to this book is that at its core it's about sisters -- I have two sisters (and no brothers) and sister stories have always gotten to me. The relationship between Iris and Laura is an exaggerated version of that combination of closeness and distance that any sisters share -- they are the people that are most like you and that you know better than anyone in the world, while at the same time being even more unknowable than a perfect stranger. This simultaneous closeness and distance between Iris and Laura drives the action of the book to its inevitably tragic (but ultimately satisfying) conclusion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)

The next book for the best book club in the U.S.A. (Go DAFFODILS!) is Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids (2010). I'm not the most informed on Patti Smith's musical career, and while I like Horses quite a bit, I find some of her music is a little too poetic and overtly political for my taste. This book, however, hardly gets into Smith's music at all. Instead it is a kind of dual coming of age story of Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in late-1960s / early-1970s New York City. It's a story of a foundational friendship and young artists finding their voice. But most of all, its a love story.

Smith and Mapplethorpe were both born in 1946 and moved to New York City in the late 1960s. Once they found each other, they quickly formed a life together that supported the two of them both personally and artistically, and which didn't end until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.

I'm not the hugest fan of the memoir as a genre (they can occasionally be wonderful, but usually either try to out do other memoirists in a horrible experiences contest or fall into the the rose-colored nostalgia trap), but Smith has written a beautiful and readable book about her experience in New York City and her relationship with Mapplethorpe, both hard subjects to approach without falling into cliches or glossing over rough edges.

Smith's background as a poet sometimes bleeds too heavily into her prose for my taste (particularly when describing herself), but for the most part she maintains a straightforward style that works well with her subject matter. The large chapter of the book that covers the couple's time in the Hotel Chelsea gets a little namedroppy (does Smith really remember every person that was at Max's Kansas City or some party or poetry reading every time?), but I imagine many readers are coming to the book for that 1970s New York experience and will appreciate knowing all the details.

I'll save some of my comments for the book club, but be prepared for the final chapter to melt even the coldest of hearts. Worth reading regardless of your musical tastes.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The War Prayer by Mark Twain (1916)

I got this copy of The War Prayer by Mark Twain (1916) at the seminary library book sale this past year -- it just called out to me from in between all the theological tomes and philosophy books.

Twain wrote this poetic protest in response to the Spanish-American war but wouldn't let it be published during his lifetime out of respect for his family, who thought the sentiments too harsh. It was first published in Harper's in 1916, in the heart of World War I, and has been a perennial favorite whenever the nation goes to war.

The copy I have was published during Vietnam, in 1971. Here Twain's words are accompanied by the powerful and chaotic line drawings of John Groth. The combination of the words and images really help to twist Twain's knife. Definitely worth a read.

[And if you want to read it (without Groth's wonderful illustrations) it is all right here.]

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas (2011)

I got a copy of The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas (published in Spain in 2009, and in an English translation in 2011) through the Library Thing EarlyReviewers program. I have to admit that even though I requested it and I do have some interest in modern Spanish politics, it took me awhile to bring this book about a failed 1981 coup d'etat up to the top of my list. And while it was slow going at first, this book really exceeded my expectations and turned into something very unique and exciting.

My first clue that this was no ordinary history or political science book should have been the first two blurbs on the back of the book: "The best history book of the year" and "A masterpiece of twenty-first century European literature." Cercas is an established novelist in Spain, and found himself moved by the half an hour of video footage of the attempted February 23, 1981 takeover of the government by a faction of the military (commonly referred to as 23-F). Although the vote of a new Prime Minister that was going on at the time was being broadcast live on the radio, a couple of cameras were in the room recording when the soldiers entered. They recorded, unmanned, for about half an hour before they were both shut off. This footage is played often in Spain on the anniversary of the coup, and the reactions of the participants, particularly the recently disgraced Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, inspired Cercas to write a novel. After the novel was done, it just didn't work for him, so he translated his extensive research and endless thoughts into this non-fiction novel of the events of the coup and the men on either side of the standoff.

During the coup, when the soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, entered the parliament floor and took the legislators hostage, three men refused to get down on the floor, even when the bullets started flying. I think wikipedia describes their reactions pretty well: "During the shooting of several machine gun rounds, whilst almost all deputies dropped terrified on the floor, three kept standing defiantly: acting Minister of Defense General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, who stood up and ordered Tejero to desist; acting President of the Government Adolfo Suárez, who remained sitting down instead of crouching on the floor; and Communist leader Santiago Carrillo, who, sitting down, calmly lit a cigarette and did not seem to be disturbed by the events." [You can get a hint of the coup here (and there is a lot more on You Tube -- search for "23 Febrero golpe de estado")]

But let's back up for a very tiny bit of Spanish history (feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if this is not your thing): In 1936, Francisco Franco led an unsuccessful coup against the left-wing Popular Front government. The coup started the Spanish Civil War, which pitted left against right and ended with Franco declaring himself the leader of Spain for life. And he lived for another 40 years. Knowing that he would need to take steps to carry on Francoism after his death, Franco allowed the heir of the Spanish monarchy, Juan Carlos, to return to Spain from Italy and be educated there. Franco was secure that Juan Carlos would continue his policies after his death and named him his official successor. He wasn't aware, however, that Juan Carlos had been meeting with political dissidents behind Franco's back, and when he came to power in 1975, he masterminded the transition of Spain from a dictatorship to a democracy.

The major creator of the new Spanish state was the first Prime Minister (who was initially appointed by the King but later elected democratically), Adolfo Suarez. Cercas describes Suarez as a "pure politician" and he did what seemed almost impossible -- got the Francoist legislature to vote their system out and a democratic one in, legalized political parties, including Communism, and extended autonomy to distinct regions of Spain. It was all going pretty great until Suarez leaned a little too far to the left from his centrist foundation, while international politics leaned heavily to the right (Thatcher, Reagan). Add in the oil crisis and increased terrorist activity from the ETA and you have a bunch of Spaniards who think that Franco wasn't so bad and another coup and a return to the right might not be a bad idea.

The background details and results of the coup (which are covered extensively in the book) are way too complicated to get into here, but I'll just say that Cercas does an amazing job of combining historical research with his novelist's eye for human psychology and emotion. The book has a wonderful structure -- each section starts with a detailed analysis of the existing video from inside the legislative chamber and ends with a step-by-step move through the action of the coup itself. In between we get the histories of all the major players, the cultural and political climate leading up to the coup, and the ultimate consequences of the military action.

Cercas' writing style takes a little getting used to, but as a lover of long sentences and multiple asides, I got into it pretty quickly. Here's a representative example: "I insist: I'm not saying that this was the only possible result of the coup for the monarchy if the King opposed it; what I'm saying is that, like any of the rest of the plotters, before joining the coup Cortina might have arrived at the conclusion that the risks the coup entailed for the monarchy were much fewer than the benefits it might bring in its wake, and that in consequence the coup was a good coup because it would triumph whether it triumphed or failed: the triumph of the coup would strengthen the Crown (that's at least what Cortina might have thought and what Armada and Milans were thinking); its failure would likewise do so."


Obviously this isn't the book for everyone, and I have a little background in this kind of thing, so I might be a special audience (I was a Spanish minor in college and took a class all in Spanish about modern Spain), but if you have a little patience and some interest in Spanish politics, try picking this one up. I've never read anything else like it.

Friday, July 01, 2011

The Maeander Project

Do you remember watching Indiana Jones as a kid? And how cool being an archaeologist seemed? Obviously real archaeologists don't (always) act like Mr. Jones (Dr. Jones?), but they are still pretty cool. [Also, as an aside, I can see how constantly being reminded of Indiana Jones could get irritating for an archaeologist, but I sort of wish archivists had a parallel film hero.]

Two of my cool archaeologist friends (Colleen and John) are participating in a very interesting sounding project this August in the Maeander River area of Southwestern Turkey. When their funding stumbled, the group didn't give up, instead they started a Kickstarter page to raise $5,000 for the trip.

If you aren't familiar with Kickstarter, it is a neat system where people can pledge money to a project in exchange for a graduated level of thank you gifts (like when you contribute to PBS). If the project doesn't meet its funding goal within the designated time frame, no one pays anything. If it reaches its funding level, everyone contributes the bit they've pledged and project goes forward. I love the idea of crowdsourcing funding for good people to do interesting things. Some projects are never going to be attractive enough to big corporations, governments, or universities to support them, for whatever reason, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't get funding. Guys, we can fund them! With as little as $1!

The Maeander Project is up to 48 backers and $3,098 as of this posting, with two weeks to go. If they hit the $5,000 goal, they have a donor who has pledged to match it. Do me a favor and read their proposal and then contribute if you can. And even if you can't contribute, spread the word about this worthwhile project.

[Photo credit: Rol1000 on Flickr. Also I don't know much about Turkey or archaeology, but this is tagged as being in the Maeander River region with a Creative Commons license and I thought it was a nice illustration. So there.]