Sunday, February 21, 2010

Off The Bookshelf

Hola, Amigos! I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but I've been doing my Jim Anchower impression! Call it the Lost Week, during which I meant to go to a quiet little beach in Thailand, but waited too late to buy tickets, so it became ridiculously expensive. Ah, well, maybe in April.

Anyway, time now for the latest installment in "What I Have Been Reading Lately":
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga - Over the course of seven nights of dictation as he sits in his office under a chandelier, Balram Halwai of Bangalore, India tells his life story, framed as advice to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao on how to foster entrepreneurship. Having grown up in the "Darkness"--India's interior--Balram ultimately makes his way to Delhi and becomes a driver for the family of a wealthy businessman. The narrator is humorous, self-deprecating and informative about the nature of modern Indian politics and business, even as he is describing how he murdered his boss.
  • The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl - Follow-up to The Dante Club, and much better. This fictional account is based on the best evidence, including original research done by the author, attempting to explain the missing five days of Edgar A Poe's life before he turned up near death in Baltimore. Poe was best known in his day as an editor, essayist and critic, and is today known to American readers as the author of tales of mystery and horror, often made into movies featuring Vincent Price. Poe's character C. Auguste Dupin is the first detective in modern fiction, and Pearl uses the idea that he is based on a real French consultant to the Parisian police in order to unravel the real-life mysteries surrounding Poe's last days. Beautifully written and exciting.
  • The Land of the Banished by Cho Chong-rae - A dark character study of a fugitive Red Brigade leader who lives as a drifter after catching his wife in flagrante delicto with his commander and killing them both in a particularly sanguinary machine gun attack. He later remarries, but his young wife runs away leaving him with a young son. As his TB worsens, he is unable to support the boy so he leaves him in an orphanage and is drawn back to his old village which he has steered clear of all these years. It is told in flashback, which works pretty well here, the prose is spare, and the story is engrossing.
  • A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon - The second adult novel by a well-known children's author, this is a splendidly-written examination of a "typical" English family preparing for their daughter's second wedding, as the father slides into insanity, as politely as possible. The trick to good characterization is to draw people who are real, but not ordinary--the reader should recognise them, in some sense, but still be surprised by their reactions at the right times. It's a good thing Haddon has characterization down so well, since he shifts POV from one to another of the four family members chapter by chapter. The plot builds to its climax at the daughter's wedding reception, but not to a crescendo so much as a multi-car pile-up that gets more and more violent as it spreads down the highway. Brilliant stuff.
  • House of Idols by Choi In-hoon - The title story of the three in this volume, according to the jacket blurb, "illustrates the author's view of Korean society's difficulty in recognizing and establishing sound values." Maybe, but I thought it was about how a young sociopath deceives an establishment type for his own amusement. "Imprisoned" is a stream-of-consciousness piece about an obsessive in an asylum, playing with a "self-righting doll" and talking about love. The best piece, and also the shortest, is "End of the Road", set in the immediate post-war years in Korea. A young woman, probably a prostitute for American servicemen, gets on a bus heading back to her hometown. The lack of civility of some her bus mates, as well as the tortured journey of the bus itself, symbolize the effects of the modern world on Korean culture.

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