Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is a tough book to review.  I've read other reviews of the book to look for a way in and most folks say the same thing; best book they've read this year, a fantasy story of a sort because it contains two mythical creatures, a serious piece of literature that deals with life issues well without focusing on those issues rather than the story, a great historical novel, a love story.

Those ideas give you a hint at this book but they still don't quite capture it.  A Golem is a creature from Hebrew mythology that is made of clay and brought to life through an incantation to serve as a slave to one master.  A Jinni (there are many types) is a creature of fire from Arabic mythology that does not willingly become a slave but can be captured by a wizard and made to perform tasks and grant wishes.  In this story, both are brought to the tenements of lower Manhattan around 1900 and set free in a way.  They struggle to make their way in the respective Jewish and Arabic communities with the help of one human in each community who understands what they are and decides to be a mentor. Inevitably they meet and understand they are in the presence of an "other" like them.  The story has a flow that constantly draws you in and along, with every character, no matter how minor, being well drawn and true to life.  The twists and turns were interesting and I did not see most of them coming.  The conclusion was satisfying (for me) and did not seem contrived, and I could not have told you the ending even when I was ten pages from the end.

This is a wonderful achievement for any author and stunning for this first time author.  It is as good as any book by Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman and can be favorably compared to any novel I've read in the last number of years, regardless of genre.  It is fantasy in the way Salman Rushdie is fantasy but is more accessible and better plotted.  I recommend it to everyone.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Detroit by Charlie LeDuff

As a Michigan native, I was drawn to this book because I, like so many others around the country, are morbidly fascinated with the city of Detroit. Growing up, we went there for Tigers games and the art museum, for a bite to eat and a show at the Fox theater a few times a year, if that. But we didn’t shop there, we didn’t walk downtown, we didn’t frequent any parks or marvel at the skyscrapers.

And we didn’t do any of those things because you can’t do those things in downtown Detroit.

I have friends who are hardcover Detroit City lovers, and I am too, in a way. But I’m not na├»ve and I’m not blind to the realities of what is happening and has happened there over the last five decades or so. It’s one thing to get excited for the potential that it holds – the young artists and entrepreneurs who are and have been moving in over the last few years, the first mayor in more than thirty years who actually seems to give a crap about the city and its future.

But Detroit went bankrupt for a reason, you guys, and it’s no clearer than when you read Charlie LeDuff’s portrait of this crumbling American city, once thriving under the car industry and booming with promise.

Get ready, though, because he doesn’t paint a pretty picture. He’s not looking at Detroit through the lens of an optimistic artist. He describes frozen corpses, burning houses, corrupt, thieving politicians, strung-out derelicts, and  murdered children. And he points out that these occurrences are as common and as unremarkable to the jaded citizens of Detroit as the Empire State Building changing colors every day is to New Yorkers.

But it was a book I’m so glad I read and one that gave me both perspective and odd hope for the city that once was. LeDuff paints a grim picture, but he does it through stories laced with facts, both good and bad - as any good journalist does.

The only criticism I have of the book as a whole is that it’s one of those that you really have to be in the right mood to read – there were times I’d pick it up, read a few pages, and put it down because it just wasn’t gelling. And then there were other days where I couldn’t put it down.

So, I’d highly recommend this to anyone in the family (and outside of it), but maybe also have something a little more upbeat to jump to (like Stories About My Underpants!) when the going gets tough and Kwame Kilpatrick kills another prostitute.

Just sayin’.

Happy reading! 

Friday, August 02, 2013

A Delicate Truth by John LeCarre

Spy stories vary but seem to fall roughly into two categories.  The most common at the moment is the person on a mission who's allowed to kill people, often with new-age gadgets (Bond) or the person with super-human abilities who also ends up killing lots of people (Bourne).  In the other camp are mostly normal human beings leading supposedly normal lives but who are actually spying, which might sometimes involve violence.  This second group has David Cornwell (pen name John LeCarre) producing books that feel very real.  It's probably because he was part of the English equivalent of both our FBI and CIA.  He doesn't seem to like those groups, especially the CIA, but has his Englishmen muddle through under murky circumstances to an often inconclusive end.  If you've read "Smiley's People" or "Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy" and like his characters and multiple person focus to telling the story, then this book is for you.

In "A Delicate Truth" Cornwell mines the most current situation, which involves using private contractors to do work that used to be done by intelligence agencies.  Since it's a lucrative field, corruption lurks in the background and cover-up can be the outcome, especially if something goes wrong.  It does.  The resulting desire to do the right thing, which often depends on your point of view, propels a ripping good yarn that I think is one of his best.

The author's use of the English class consciousness and old boy network can be grating to an American reader, but it feels real.  His disdain for the CIA and apparently Americans in general may at least stem partially from working with those folks during the late '50s and '60's when the CIA did a lot of government overthrow but was less successful in actually gathering secret data and making good analysis.  In fairness, the English had their share of spies high in their MI6 who were working for the USSR, so nobody comes out clean in reviewing the history of espionage.  If you like that clear eyed view of the genre, then read this book.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

This is a first novel by outdoor magazine writer Peter Heller about those who inhabit what was once the state of Colorado after a devastating flu epidemic some decades from now.  This is not "The Road", with its most bleak of depictions of a post apocalyptic world, but it is mostly populated with people living in a kill or be killed existence.

That description is probably enough for many to stop and not bother with the book.  However, the upside is a compelling story interspersed with lyrical writing about hunting and fishing, flying, and a man's relationship with his dog.  The writing style is different, with a quasi-stream-of-consciousness rambling whenever you are inside his mind.  Heller could work on that some but I got into the rhythm and didn't notice after a while.

I've thought a lot about this book since reading it last month and think Becky would like it and know that Jackie already does since she read it as well.  If you skip over the idea that this fellow probably should have been killed off early on because he was and still is hesitant to just kill anyone who's still around, then the story works well enough and really moves along the farther you get into it.  At about 250 pages, it's a quick read and worth giving a try.