So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong
Set in Shanghai one year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Death of a Red Heroine is a police murder mystery that gets overshadowed by the political implications of the case. In a time when Communist Party ideals were being challenged by new marketplace values, the police detectives have to navigate political implications as well as follow the clues in order to solve the case. The city itself is a major character as the case takes us from the palatial homes of the Communist Party elite to the families of workers living in single rooms and sharing communal kitchens. But above all, the book is about honest cops trying to do the right thing in a shifting moral environment.
If you like to visit different times and cultures through well-written books, this may appeal to you. As a Best First Novel it was nominated for an Edgar Award and received an Anthony Award. The author was a Chinese scholar born in Shanghai who was studying in the USA at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. He stayed in the USA and this was his first mystery novel in English.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Samba for Sherlock

A Samba for Sherlock by Jô Soares
Originally published in Brazil in 1995 as O Xangô De Baker Street and translated into English in 1997, this novel features Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson being summoned to Rio by the real life actress Sarah Bernhardt who, on the first stop of her 1886 world tour, suggests to the Emperor of Brazil that the famous detective may help him find a stolen Stradivarius violin. While they are on board ship to Rio matters take a macabre turn as a prostitute is found in an alley stabbed to death with a violin string curled into her pubic hair and a flap of skin cut from her body. So when they arrive, it is not only a theft, but a murder they are asked to solve.

The author José Eugênio "Jô" Soares is a Brazilian television talk show host known for his observational comedy, surreal humor, and deadpan style, and this is his first novel. He takes liberties with his portrayal of Sherlock making the book both humorous as well as a mystery. I fear that a lot of his Brazilian humor gets lost in translation to an American audience. His willingness to make the detective the butt of much of his humor may not endear this work to diehard Holmesians. Readers willing to go along with the joke may find his portrayal a lot of fun.

Soares fills the book with a large cast of characters, as well as locational and historic details, that make it a rich and rewarding experience. I have not come across many novels like this one where the author provides a five page Bibliography of references, although I am sure other authors have done even more research than he in creating their historical fiction. I found it hard to keep track of all the names of the players and, even though the book came with a detailed endpaper map of Rio, impossible to follow the geographic references. So while I enjoyed the book, I was left feeling I had missed half the jokes, found the cast of characters confusing, and was in the dark on most of the local references.

The book was made into an award winning Portuguese/Brazilian movie O Xangô de Baker Street in 2000.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
Following up on Alison Bechdel's first exploration into her family history called Fun Home is Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. The first book looked at her relationship with her father, a closeted bisexual who commits suicide, as she is coming out as a lesbian. This second excursion, as the title suggests, examines her relationship with her mother, but also the love relationships in her life, her connection with her psychoanalysts, and her reading of the works of Sigmund Freud and D. W. Winnicott.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nat Turner

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
Nat Turner was a African American slave in Southampton County Virginia who was born in 1800. He led a slave rebellion in August 1831 and was executed that November. When he was in jail awaiting execution, a white lawyer named Thomas R. Gray visited him and wrote down Turner's own story which was published in 1831 as The Confessions of Nat Turner. This is not to be confused with the 1967 novel of the same title by the white Virginia author William Styron. However both Styron's novel and the graphic novel Nat Turner by Kyle Baker are derived from Gray's original Confessions.

The illustrations for Baker's Nat Turner wordlessly illustrate the original 1831 Confessions which appears as text set in the graphic novel. The words of the original Confessions and Baker's graphic narrative enhance each other, creating a most powerful document for understanding Turner's life and motivation. Originally self published as a four part series, Nat Turner sold out two printings and won several prizes in 2006, including an Eisner Award for best reality-based work. Since 2008 it has been published as a single volume through a commercial press.

Part One is called "Home" and tells the story prior to that covered in Gray's Confessions of Nat Turner of Nat's mother being captured in Africa by slavers, transported to the coast, and put onto a slave ship to America where she is sold as a slave. Part Two is called "Education" and tells the remarkable story of Nat, a gifted child with mysterious powers, who can read, who is deeply spiritual, and starts to receive visions and messages. At the same time, he is witness to the brutality of human slavery all around him and as it effects him and his parents, wife and children. After his wife and children are sold away from him, his visions take a dark turn where he sees white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle and blood flowing in streams. He is told to be prepared to receive a sign to begin his fight against the Serpent. The first sign of a solar eclipse marks the beginning of Part Three - Freedom in which Nat starts to tell a select group of close associates of his visions and they make plans for the rebellion. The Great Barbados hurricane of August 1831, which turned the Sun blue as far north as Virginia was to Nat Turner, the sign he had been waiting for to begin the slaughter. He and his four allies went into houses in the dark of night, killing all the whites, taking their weapons and horses, and recruiting followers from their slaves. Before they were eventually stopped, there were about 60 armed freed slaves following him and over 55 dead whites in their trail. Part Four - Triumph details Turner's last days.

I had read Gray's book The Confessions of Nat Turner prior to reading Baker's graphic novel, and I find the combination of the hauntingly expressive images with the simple straightforward text an exceedingly effective manner to present Nat Turner's life and activities to a modern audience. The story is compelling to me because I live just two hours from the site of the rebellion, and slave conditions would have been the same here as they were for Nat Turner in Virginia. Baker has made the story one that I will never forget. At the end of the book is a Bibliography of further readings and a Teacher's Guide that would make this a powerful classroom instructional tool.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler

Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler
This novelette written in 1924 and translated into English in 1925 by Francis Hamilton Lyon, a prolific translator of Scandinavian and German books, tells in stream of consciousness style one day in the life of 19 year old Else while she is on holiday at the Hotel Fratazza near Monte Cimone, the highest mountain in the northern Apennines, of Italy. She is traveling with her aunt Emma, cousin Paul, and his girl friend Cissy when an express letter comes to her from her mother in Vienna. The letter states that Else's father, a lawyer, is in a dire financial situation and needs 30,000 Guldens, or he will be arrested for embezzling a trust fund. All other avenues of borrowing the money are exhausted, and her mother asks Else to make a personal request of a loan from Herr von Dorsday, who has loaned her father money in the past, and have him wire the money as soon as possible.
The Austro-Hungarian Gulden was replaced by the Krone in 1892, with 1 Gulden = 2 Kronen. In 1913 one US Dollar was worth approximately 5 Kronen. So the 30,000 Gulden of this story might have had a value of around $12,000.
Dorsday is a rake who was been casting lingering glances at Else, and she is reluctant to put herself in a compromising situation with him. The book follows her thought process as she struggles with the dilemma that her mother's letter has created for her. She cannot ignore her father's plight and yet is in dread of her own situation of being indebted to von Dorsday. How she resolves her inner struggle makes compelling reading.
Some of Schnitzler's works were controversial due to their frank description of sexuality. While Else is not unaware of the sexual implications of her plight, this is not one of his pornographically labeled works. It is one of his notable works, and this edition provides a good readable English translation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Myra Breckinridge & Myron

Myra Breckinridge & Myron by Gore Vidal

Today author Gore Vidal is mostly known for his Narratives of Empire series of seven novels on American history published between 1967 and 2000. These books (Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and The Golden Age) tell the history of the American Empire through the lives of two fictional families and their interactions with real figures in American history. Few recall the critical uproar caused by his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar that dealt frankly with male homosexuality. And while many recall Myra Breckinridge, it is usually the 1970 film (often listed as one of the worst films ever made), not Vidal's 1968 best-selling novel, that people remember. The 1974 sequel Myron is largely forgotten.

Myra Breckinridge and its sequel Myron are two novels that were very much a product of their times, the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s. In his 1993 Introduction to this volume combining the two, Vidal quotes poet Thom Gunn as saying "These two books [are] the twentieth-century equivalents of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass." They form part of a series of completely fictional novels that Vidal calls his satirical inventions, that also include Messiah, Kalki, and Duluth. In the 2014 biographical documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Vidal says of the novel: "When I start an entirely invented book like Myra, I seldom start with anything more than a sentence that has taken possession of me. In this case, 'I am Myra Breckenridge whom no man will ever possess.' Who was she? I could only find out if I kept on writing. It was not until I was half way through the story that I realized that she had been a male who changed his sex."

Told as a series of entries in a therapy journal kept by Myra for her analyst and doctor, the novel tells the story of her arriving in Hollywood to meet retired film star "Buck" Loner who now runs the Academy of Drama and Modeling on the fifty acres of land that once held his father's orange groves. Myra claims to be his nephew Myron's widow. She tells Buck that his sister, her mother-in-law Gertrude, always told her and Myron that her father's property was left jointly to her and Buck, and that she passed on the rights to her half to Myron and Myra. Myron was a film critic who studied the films of the 1930s and 40s. Myra tells Buck that Myron fell off the Staten Island Ferry and drowned. When Buck offers Myra a job teaching at the Academy as their lawyers work out the details of the inheritance, the plot is set for the novel.

I was surprised at how much of this novel is about film theory and criticism. Myra's stated goal in the novel is to finish writing Myron's book Parker Tyler and the Films of the Forties; or, the Transcendental Pantheon. I had to look up Parker Tyler who it turns out was a New York film critic who wrote on gay and underground films from the mid-40s to the mid-70s when he died. Throughout the book Myra exhibits an encyclopedic knowledge of the films of the first half of the 20th century. So while this book is one of the earliest novels about a transgender character, it is not really written to provide insight into the concerns and problems of a transgender person, which often disappoints its audience. Both these books are social satires on sexuality that explore Vidal's belief that people are basically bisexual and that gender roles and sexual orientation are social constructs established by societal norms.

If Myra Breckinridge is a satire on social norms with Myra as a modern Alice visiting a Hollywood wonderland, the second book Myron is a Through the Looking Glass time travel sci-fi satire where Myron, now happily married and living in the suburbs, falls through the screen of his television one night while watching the 1948 MGM movie Siren of Babylon starring Maria Montez. He lands on the set of the film in production just at the scene he was watching, and is trapped in the Hollywood past with a group of other viewers who seem to stumble through the screen each time the film is aired on TV. The actors on the set cannot see these visitors from the future, but once Myron leaves the set, the local people outside the studio and across the street at the neighborhood hotel can see the people they call out of towners who have taken up residence there. Here Myron starts to struggle with his alter personality Myra for control of their body with comic effect. The locals and the other out of towners are left wondering at this strange person with dual gendered personalities. While Myron seeks to get back to his wife and life in the suburbs, Myra wants to save MGM at this crucial point in their history and recreate a golden age of film. She also has a plan to save the world from overpopulation that is unique. I find the time travel paradoxes handled quite well by the author. The two books together like this in a single volume make for great reading. They have inspired me to take a look at other of Vidal's satirical invention novels.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Curious Cruise of Captain Santa

The Curious Cruise of Captain Santa by Ruth Plumly Thompson
Ruth Plumly Thompson was hired by the publisher Reilly & Lee when L. Frank Baum died to continue writing books in his Oz series. She ended up writing almost twice as many Oz books as Baum did. So it is quite natural for Thompson to also try her hand at writing a children's book about Santa Claus, seeing as how Baum had written several. Originally published in 1926, and using the same illustrator she and Baum used for the Oz series, John R. Neill, The Curious Cruise of Captain Santa is a delightful fantasy adventure.
Just after Christmas one year, Santa decides to build a ship and go sailing in search of new and interesting toys for him to give to children. He has heard of The Lost Islands and the rumors that they have living dolls, and he wants to find the islands and bring back some of these fabulous dolls for the children next Christmas. Accompanying him on the adventure is an orphan named Jim who has come to live at Santa's North Pole Palace, a talking polar bear named Huggerumbo, and Penny the Penguin, who looks after Santa. They set sail for the Lost Islands with a cargo of toys and treats to trade for new toys that they might discover along the way. After many amusing adventures, they return with a hold full of new toys and the hope to sail again another year.
While the book can be read on its own and enjoyed as a post-Christmas adventure yarn for children who wonder what Santa does the rest of the year, this is most likely to appeal to folks like me who are devoted readers of the Oz series.