Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's resolution

Looking over the past few months of my book blog, I'm a bit disturbed about the paucity of finished books. I blame the presidential campaign in part because I spent a lot of time watching cable television coverage for background for my twice weekly MarketWatch column and this cut into my prime reading time in the early evening.

I'd like once again to envisage reading at least a book a week, as I did after discovering the blog from Nina Sakovitch and her project to read a book a day. This doesn't mean I won't continue to read a number of books at the same time -- one or two in print, maybe an e-book and an audiobook. But I would like for books finished and reviewed here to average four or five a month -- one a week.

I consider film and television to be viable alternatives to the benefits we derive from good books -- entertainment, information, a feeling for real-life issues, a widening of horizons, and, often, emotional catharsis. But too much of the time I spend in front of the TV is wasted on vacuous programming. Yes, we are all entitled to down time -- wasted time -- but I think I overindulge.

Some of the books I read may be as empty as these TV shows, but generally they have some redeeming quality in a sense of place, a sly humor, a quality of writing that is entertaining and, for me as a writer, instructive. Most of the books I read offer the benefits listed above in far greater measure than all but the very best on TV, so I think my time is better spent with them.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

It's hard not to like Michael Chabon and to appreciate the rambunctious quality of his prose. After the dazzling The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, he succeeds again in this book in creating a world that is coherent in itself while outside the bounds of normal experience.

The bestseller is famously about an alternate history of a Jewish homeland after the war, when the attempt to establish a Jewish refuge in Palestine fails. Instead, a sizable population is settled in Alaska, where, in a cross between an American Indian reservation and Hong Kong, they are leased a specific district in Sitka for 60 years. The action of the novel takes place in the weeks just before the Reversion -- the end of the lease -- when the district reverts to American control and most of the Jews must find a different home.

But this is much more than just an entertaining alternate history, clever as it is. This is a largely successful effort to capture in a story that is equal parts satire and thriller the entire sweep of Jewish history, from the irony of being the Chosen People to the undying hope for a Messiah.

The protagonist, Meyer Landsman (the first of many punny names, with Willie Dick being one of the most awful punned names since Pussy Galore), is a detective who, in the manner of all hard-boiled detectives, has gone to seed over a woman. When a junkie is murdered in his flophouse hotel, Landsmann sets out to find the killer even as the countdown begins for his jurisdiction to vanish. The search for the murderer, which he must eventually pursue after he has been suspended from the police force, leads him to discover a conspiratorial plot to change history and give Jews a new homeland.

Chabon's alternate history, like all good works in this genre, is not that different from real history. The Sitka district, with the Jewish population crowded into a tightly limited space, is a fanciful version of the ghettos in Warsaw and other cities prior to the war. The establishment of a post-Sitka territory is depicted as a heinous act of terrorism, sponsored by a certain Western government for blatantly cynical motives. In the view of many, of course, this description fits the establishment of the state of Israel.

Chabon luxuriates in the language and traditions of Central European Jews, punning in Yiddish, extrapolating and inventing from real traditions to create new arcane customs and foods. His language is prolix and florid, and at times tiring, but relentlessly imaginative and usually compelling. His descriptions are gritty and detailed, his images vivid, the overall atmosphere tellingly rendered.

There are many strands woven into the plot -- the theme of chess and why people are obsessed with it, the racial rivalries between Alaska's native Indians and "Americans" as well as with the transplanted Jewish population, the relations between fathers and sons and between husbands and wives, and ex-wives. All together, these plot lines create a rich texture for the reader while unraveling the mystery moves the plot along.

Fittingly, it all ends on an ambivalent note with the future very uncertain. Landsman seems to have found his footing again, and probably regained the love of his ex-wife, so it can all be seen as a redemption, but in the sense of being a vindication of the redeeming sort of life Landsman had always attempted to live.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Reading and drinking

Having made the point in the previous post that I am widening the scope of this blog partly to avoid giving the impression that I spend all my time eating and drinking, given the much greater frequency of posting on my food blog, here my first post is about drinking.

It doesn't make much sense to call interim posts "Current reading" and for lack of a better title, much of my current reading is concerned with drinking. I'm regularly reading Philip Greene's To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion and I have started a Hemingway countdown on the food blog, akin to the famous Julia Child blog -- 52 weeks, 55 cocktails! At the present rate, I'll be done in far fewer than 52 weeks.

I'm using the cocktail entries then as a way to explore Hemingway's short stories, most of which I've never read. I've had the Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway sitting on my shelf for eons, and now when Greene cites one of the stories as mentioning the cocktail in question, I read that story. Needless to say, the stories themselves go well beyond the mention of the cocktail. More on them later.

I'm also reading How to Love Wine by Eric Asimov, the wine critic for the New York Times -- and Isaac Asimov's nephew! He has a refreshing take on wine appreciation, debunking the wine snobs and their slavish devotion to points and trends. It's music to my ears. I stopped going to Calvert Woodley, at least on Saturday mornings, because I couldn't stand the press of balding, gray-haired, pot-bellied men (like myself!) airing their opinions (unlike me!) about wine and chasing the latest recommendation from the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. There's too much good wine out there and taste is too subjective to pretend that there is a canon of wines that one must have and those that must be avoided.

The other nonfiction book I'm reading is Napoleon: Life, Legacy, and Image: A Biography, which I'm reviewing for the Washington Independent Review of Books. It's a good read, but I'll save my comments for the review, which I'll cross-post here.

I'm having another go at Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and I'm making much better progress than when I tried before and abandoned it. Chabon is unquestionably a good writer, but his prolix language is sometimes tough going and his characters are not always so sympathetic -- like the protagonist Meyer Landsmann in this book. But his wit and irony are engaging and this is a marvelous alternate history. It was a recent conversation with Fred Pollack that sent me back to this book, as he was praising Chabon's newest, Telegraph Avenue. Fred, a poet who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, has never steered me wrong.

Bedside reading is The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer, one of the discoveries I made recently on the remainder shelf at Politics & Prose. The writing is elegant, if a bit studied. I'm not big on coming of age stories, but the appeal for me here is the re-creation of the world of the 1950s -- the world I grew up in. The format of linked stories is also just right for periodic reading.

On audiobooks, I'm "reading" Robert Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography. I'm still not ready to listen to books while I'm walking the dog, but I am now making more of an effort to listen to books when I'm in the car for longer than 10 or 15 minutes. Kaplan is something of a soulmate for me because he pays so much attention to geography, which is the basis for my book, The New Superregions of Europe.

Blog posts

I've decided I need to widen the scope of this blog. Up until now I have generally only blogged a type of book review when I finish a book. As a result, the rate of posts has been pretty low. I read most every day, but there are many books I start and put aside, especially since I'm usually reading a number of books at once.

Also, in the meantime, my blogging has evolved. When I started it was almost grudging -- I resisted blogging for a long time because I write for a living and this seemed like writing for a hobby. In the meantime, I've come to see blogging as a professional activity. I am a writer and blogging has become a major medium for writers. I have several of my own blogs and have started ghostwriting a blog for Andrea about her practice. I've re-jiggered my mediabistro profile to feature blogging, though admittedly I've had no queries since I did.

I'm posting like crazy to my food blog -- now called my food and drinks blog -- and people may well get the idea I'm so busy eating and drinking I never have time to read. But, as I said, I'm reading all the time. So I'd like to make this blog more supple, posting more often about books I'm reading, more or less as the spirit takes me. A book may be mentioned once and never again if I lay it aside. Or when I finish a book, the final comment may not be the same complete review as before because of previous comments I've made. I can perhaps try to link to earlier comments, but given the spotty nature of the search function of blogspot -- odd, considering it is a Google product -- that may not always work.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Devil's Waters

This thriller by David Robbins has a lot going for it. It involves the very topical Somali pirates and features a little-known crack military team, the U.S. Air Force Pararescue jumpers. The action is situated in Somalia, Djibouti and a French freighter in the Gulf of Aden, all suitably exotic.

Robbins is an accomplished writer and keeps the pace moving. His descriptions are crisp and his grasp of military operations and hardware is authoritative, so that the book has a solid feel to it. Interestingly, he alternates the point of view between the Somali pirates, led by Yusuf Raage and his cousin, and the American "PJs", led by LB DiNardo. Robbins gives Raage a surprising depth of characterization with a certain amount of sympathy for what drives the Somalis to piracy. The airmen are placed in some brutal situations, and even though they are hard-bitten, they don't remain unaffected.

Perhaps because Robbins has set the bar so high in this altogether compelling thriller, I found myself missing a little more depth in the American protagonists, and especially LB. What we see of his interior life is fairly flat and the banter among the PJ team doesn't really substitute for characterization that gives the reader any empathy. In fact, I found I had more sympathy for Yusuf and his clan than for the PJs. As a result, LB -- this "call signal" stands for Little Bastard -- lives up to his nickname, unfortunately for a reader who would like to identify more with the hero.

The callous cynicism behind a plot that involves a secret shipment of a super-weapon to Iran is just credible enough and there are other highlights -- such as the bitter and broken Russian captain of the freighter, Drozdov. The enigmatic Russian scientist, Irina, is less convincing. Her appearances are too intermittent and too much of her story is told rather than shown. And the tease of a potential relationship with LB helps neither plot nor characterization.

The action is good but the post-climactic denouement involves too much telling as a new character comes in to tie up the loose ends.

I came across this book because Robbins had a review in the Washington Independent Review of Books and his bio described him as a novelist living in Richmond. For the first time, I took advantage of my Amazon Prime privilege of "borrowing" an e-book. It turns out that these can only be read on Kindle devices, not apps -- I guess so that they are able to take it back -- which is not ideal for me, since my first-generation Kindle is not always convenient to read. (Authors, btw, do get a payment each time a book is borrowed.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Remainders: Get 'em While They Last

My riff on remainders appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books under the appealing new heading of "Slow Reads":
I’ve discovered a partial cure for the condition that afflicts many of us: not being able to go into Politics & Prose, our great local independent bookstore, without buying a bag full of books. Now, I go directly to the remainder shelves and do my shopping among the bargain books. I still come away with several books but spend a lot less money.
Remainders are those copies of hardcovers and trade paperbacks that the publisher sells at a steep discount to make room in the warehouse and get inventory off its account books. Because they are the end game in a production method that is in the process of disappearing, remainders will soon be an historic artifact.
What I like about shopping for remainders at P&P is that somebody has made an effort to find good books to put on the bargain shelf. These may be by well known authors, but often they’re by writers you’ve never read.
In a book culture too often in the grip of group-think — book clubs all reading the same handful of bestsellers that get reviewed and promoted just for that audience — it may seem quaint to pick up a book and buy it just because you like what you see in sampling a few pages. We all consider our time so precious that the idea of reading a book that hasn’t been vetted by one of the arbiters of popular culture seems extremely risky.
At Barnes & Noble, which seems to acquire its bargain books by the container load, you are indeed taking your chances on buying something that could be a waste of time. But at an independent like P&P, which has already filtered out much of the detritus, dipping into remainders can be quite rewarding.
In earlier forays on the remainder shelves, I have discovered new writers and reconnected with others I’d forgotten. For instance, I once picked up Simon Mawer’s The Gospel of Judas as a remainder. It was an intriguing book that I liked well enough to buy another novel of his (at full price!), The Glass Room, which I loved. He is now one of my favorite authors. Another time, I came across Forgetfulness by Ward Just, which was apt enough, because I’d forgotten that I really liked his novel The Translator when I’d read it years earlier.
Just, of course, is a prolific and well established mid-list author who fortunately has a base of readers who consistently buy his books at full price. Authors don’t get any money from the sale of remainders, so he’s hardly relying on my purchase of a remainder copy to make a living. But it made me much likelier to look for his new books and consider buying them. For his part, Mawer has advanced to being a certified book-club-worthy author.
On a recent trip to the remainder shelves, I picked up four books — for the price of one! One was I Curse the River of Time by the Norwegian author Per Petterson, who became relatively well known in this country for Out Stealing Horses. Another was The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer, whom I’d never heard of but who utterly charmed me with the opening pages of this book. A third novel was City of Veils by ZoĆ« Ferraris, a mystery thriller set in Saudi Arabia.
I hadn’t seen reviews of any of these titles and never heard of two of the authors. It may well be that I won’t like the books as much as I did the opening pages. But I only paid a little more for each than I would for a triple-grande cappuccino.
The fourth book was nonfiction, The Battle for Christendom by Frank Welsh, an account of the crucial role in European history played by the Council of Constance in the 15th century. Welsh argues that we pay too much attention to Western Europe in our study of history and ignore important events in Central and Eastern Europe. Constance, he claims, was more important than Agincourt in European history. In any case, it appealed to my fascination with the invisible borders running through the continent that I discovered while researching my own book, The New Superregions of Europe.
So a good haul, I think, which may end up just adding to the unread volumes on my bookshelf but could well afford me hours of pleasure, enhanced by the fact that I discovered these all on my own (with a little help from the P&P elves).
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The Grand Mirage.