Hiroyuki Agawa: Citadel in Spring
"Really, when you think about it," the protagonist of Hiroyuki Agawa's autobiographical novel, Citadel in Spring, remarks in the book's last pages, "I grew up in the midst of war—it's been going on ever since I was a kid." The novel is the story of how youth is tainted by war, an account into which the author weaves together several strands: the protagonist's work as a code-breaker, his friendships, his literary aspirations, his romances, and finally—graphically and movingly—the destruction of his home town, Hiroshima. The protagonist, who is surely a stand-in for the author is self-centered and seems unable to care much about others. These qualities do not recommend him as a person, but the detachment of which his creator, Agawa, is capable, serves the novel well.
Christopher McDougall: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
This is, as the author has noted, several books in one. It is an argument for the controversial theory that human beings evolved to run long distances, an introduction to the Tarahumara, the famous "running Indians" who live in the remote Copper Canyon in Mexico (their name for themselve is Rarámuri, or those who run fast), the growing sport of ultra-running, and an amazing endurance race held in the Copper Canyon between American ultra-runners and these fast-running Native Americans. A fascinating read, this book left me wanting to know more about each of the areas it touches upon.
Barry Eisler: Redemption Games (previously published as Killing Rain and One Last Kill) (John Rain series) (Volume 4)
Okay, I said I was addicted, and I grow more so as the protagonist of these novels, the assassin John Rain, grows more complex. He's actually begun to feel guilty for, you know, assassinating people.
Barry Eisler: A Lonely Resurrection (previously published as Hard Rain and Blood from Blood) (John Rain series) (Volume 2)
This is the second I've read in Barry Eisler's series about assassin John Rain, and I'm afraid I'm hooked. They're well written, his evocation of Tokyo rings true, and his protagonist is interesting. It seems odd to suggest that the actions of a character who is a cold-blooded assassin could be morally ambiguous, and in most novels like this he would not be; he would be either a good guy--his assassinations were somehow justified--or a bad guy--defined as such because of his assassinations. Rain moves back and forth between those camps: sometimes he's only in in for the money, but thinks he's at least not in the pay of absolute evil. Other times the people he kills are absolutely evil, so the killings could possibly be defined as heroic. Other times somebody irritates him, and ends up with a broken neck. In keeping his protagonist wondering about whether he's doing the right thing, whether he could choose to do otherwise, and whether he could atone for what he's done, he keeps us, his readers, guessing about how we should feel. This places the book a rung up from the run-of-the-mill.
Theodora Keogh: The Double Door
Though not quite as coldly elegant as The Tattooed Heart, Theodora Keogh's The Double Door is another excellent short novel that belongs on your "we forget how weird the '40s and '50s in the USA were" shelf. The double door of the title is between two buildings in New York City. The first is occupied by a family made up of a neurotic and unlovable mother, a girl with a heart of ice who is her 12-year-old daughter, and the girl's father, a South American gigolo who passes himself off as European nobility. The other is where the nobleman indulges in debauchery with a select circle of friends augmented by young men picked up off the street. That one of this gang is a monk on leave from the monastery only adds to the gothic tone of the book. It's not surprising that one of the few positive reviews Patricia Highsmith ever wrote was of one of Keogh's novels. Fans of Highsmith's cold eye will certainly enjoy her work.
Roz Kaveney: Rituals - Rhapsody of Blood, Volume One
This is a well-written fantasy—largely urban—about two heroines who, mostly independent of each other, set about removing evil-doers from the world. Both of the heroines are, perhaps, a bit too heroic—they hardly seem challenged by encounters even with monumental evil—but Kaveney's intelligence saves the book. She manages to weave together lots of the world's mythologies (she writes hilariously about Judeo-Christian mythology in particular) and augment them with her knowledge of music, opera, history and literature to produce a fantasy more than usually engaging.
Dr. Kenjiro Setoue: Doctor Stories from the Island Journals of the Legendary Dr. Koto
Dr. Setoue, a successful surgeon, took a temporary job at a clinic on a remote Japanese island in the South China Sea. He intended to stay six months, but has ended up spending his life in that remote place and caring for the people there. Setoue's Island Journals are unexciting, and that is as it should be. He does what needs to be done, and writes about it simply, but in a way that helps us to understand why he remains with the aging islanders, and why they have come to trust and depend on him. He is, it is clear, a good man.
Tristan Garcia: Hate: A Romance: A Novel
Tristan Garcia's Hate: A Romance is about the cultural, political, and intellectual life of France—which is to say Paris—in the last two or three decades. Since that life can be seen as a series of conversations (also arguments, shouting matches, and hissy fits) this is appropriate: we never quite know what Garcia thinks about AIDS, Israel and Palestine, head scarves on Moslem women, Internet culture, or any of the rest of the issues that he, or rather his characters, are on about. We do see them loving each other, and thanks in large part to a sort of man without qualities from the provinces, hating each other, and doing their best to destroy each other, before the novel's end. The book is compelling, though thanks to the odiousness of this interloper, at times it is hard to read. Hate is the 27-year-old author's first novel (he's also published a book of philosophy), a fact that makes it all the more impressive.
John Gray: The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
“Straw Dogs” is approachable and endlessly stimulating. (I reread it regularly and get fresh inspiration from it each time.) “The Silence of Animals”, billed as a sequel, is as dense and opaque as most books of philosophy. Which is not a compliment. After two passes which yielded little, I may come back to it some day, out of respect for the author, in the hope of getting more. (Here's what I said about Straw Dogs last time I read it: "I first read this book of philosophy in 2002 and it was even more powerful and helpful this time around. Gray convinces me that the whirlwind of human action and our attempts to make the world a better place are ways to try and deny our mortality. He suggests, rather, a life of contemplation and seeing, which is what I now aspire to. ***** My book of the year.") (*)
Ian McEwan: Sweet Tooth
[Skull, no, Skillduggery] McEwan’s latest and surprisingly gentle novel paints a vivid picture of 70s Britain. There are also interesting insights into both the mysterious world of the MI5, and the life of a novelist. The whole thing is a little off kilter, (rather as late Woody Allen movies tend to be). Is it because McEwan is less than competent at channeling a female protagonist/narrator? Suffice it to say, all is explained. Extremely clever it is. Fairly entertaining, too, but--to this reader--less than completely satisfying. (***)
Edmund de Waal: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
A English potter, descended from a rich, Jewish family that was dispersed and dispossessed of everything in Hitler’s Europe leading up to World War II, traces the history of the one remaining family heirloom: a collection of antique netsuke. De Waal brings the family members and their lives, and the places—Odessa, Paris, Vienna, Tokyo--and times they lived in, to vivid life. Along with this pleasure is a harrowing account of anti-Semitism. Thank you, C and L, for recommending this. I enjoyed it deeply and learned a lot from it. (*****)
Tom Lubbock: Until Further Notice, I Am Alive
Our own death is absolutely inconceivable: it’s a koan as inexplicable as one hand clapping. This is made abundantly clear in Tom Lubbock’s death memoir, written while a brain tumor gradually takes his language and his life. We all face death; it cannot be faced; this book dives into that paradox. Lubbock mentally thrashes this way and that, trying to grasp death and to come to terms with it. It’s an endless, impossible process. Round about the 80-page mark, it brought me (not him) to the exhausted realization that the present moment is the only refuge. That death doesn't exist apart from life. This book was a valuable meditation. (****)
William Maxwell: All The Days And Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell
I have Levi Stahl's "I’ve been reading lately" blog to thank for suggesting William Maxwell’s "All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories." Maxwell, in sensitive, beautiful prose, evokes characters and incidents, many from his years growing up in rural America in the early 1900s. The details, often unexpected, always true, cause these diamond creations to sparkle with life. The book ends with 21 short improvisations. At first I missed the previous realism in these tall tales, but they, too, are so full of thrilling, unexpected detail and sly humor, I was won over. (****)