Sunday, February 19, 2017

Blendi Fevziu's Enver Hodxa

I read Enver Hodxa with great interest.  I knew nothing about him prior to reading this, and only slightly more about Albania.  I think this is an important book, because it is accessible and tells a story of a dictator lacking in any sense of human connection.  One of the things that is most striking about Hodxa's story is the fact that the only people with whom he was close but did not were the members of his immediate family.  Read the book, and you learn one thing:  only Enver survived among his colleagues, comrades, and friends.

While the writing is good, I thought that the first 2/3 of the book lacked a clear, strong organizing structure.  The last section, which essentially is organized around the final purge and then Hodxa's declining health and death, was the strongest. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Yasmine Al-Rashidi's Chronicles of a Last Summer

The most impressive thing I find in this novel is the way the author changes the voice of the narrator to reflect her age in the three sections from different times in her life:  1984, 1998, and 2014.  In the first section, she's a young girl, and the syntax reflects convincingly how a young girl would talk.  The sentences are short and simple, assertive without condition.  Here's an example:  "People stared at us.  There were policemen everywhere.  Outside, inside . . .  Mama took my hand.  She pulled me.  We walked up the big marble staircase."  She also reports what she hears without much commentary on it:  "Uncle said co-ops exist because of Nasser's mistakes."  In the 1998 section, as a young woman she has become a deeper, more expansive thinker, wrestling with some way to deal with her history and Egypt's:  "I've taken to writing letters to people who don't exist or once existed or exist only as statues or gods."  In the final section, the narrator's voice seems both nostalgic (she talks about her dead Uncle and what she would say to him) and certain:  She wants to preserve the "older memories" and not let them get erased by the events in Tahrir Square in 2011 or 2013.  The tension between permanence and change is prevalent throughout the novel.  On the one hand, the narrator lives with her mother in the house in which her mother was born.  The house contains memories of generations of her family, and is a constant and steadying space for the narrator.  Outside the doors, however, the Egypt she experiences is in an almost perpetual state of change, often violently effected:  Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi, Mansour, Sisi.  The novel ends on the verge of the permanence ad history of the house going away. 

This is a beautifully written novel, seductive and compelling.  I was eager to read more not because of the plot, but because of the experience of reading and enjoying the delicious language and smart structure of the novel.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Marcus Segdwick's Mister Memory

I enjoyed Mister Memory very much, and found myself drawn along through the unfolding of the case.  The novel is a page-turner, and I found that I could not put it down once I got into it. Characters such as Petit and Ondine are developed well, and Sedgwick did a good job of staging the relationship between Morel and Marcel.

The one weakness of the novel, however, is the ending.  I thought it was anti-climatic and flat.  There was also an unnecessary turn to broad philosophical statements that took away from the trajectory of the plot.

That said, Mister Memory is a well-crafted and entertaining exploration of human depravity and the dangers and pain of memory.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Boris Akunin's The State Councilor

I enjoyed reading the first book of the Earst Fandorin series a couple of years ago, and was eager to read The State Councilor, but I was greatly disappointed by the novel.  Fandorin is overshadowed by several other characters, and at times his main contribution seems to be standing quietly while things are happening to/around him.  He doesn't seem particularly clever or insightful, and certainly doesn't rise, in this novel, to the level of a character with a series named for him.  Part of the problem might be that the novel itself seems neither carefully plotted nor interesting.  I kept reading it because I assumed that something incredible was about to happen in the pages ahead.  I thought that was starting to happen as the baths episode unfolded, but it never actually did.  Not only was that episode improbable, but it also seemed like Akunin had rushed to finish it.  The result there, as in other parts of the novel, was that it felt hastily completed.

It is possible that the novel was more nuanced in Russian, and the translation didn't capture subtleties throughout the novel.  Fandorin's final act in the novel might, for instance, have seemed more clearly set up in the original language.  In this translation, it seemed almost unrelated to the rest of the novel.
In the end, The State Councilor is pretty pedestrian stuff.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Winter's Respite Readathon

And now on to the two-week readathon (tonight through January 29), organized by Michelle@ True Book Addict.  I'm intrigued by the two-week format, and hope to finish a couple more books during that time.

I wrapped up the Bout of Books readathon having finished Hockey Night Fever and almost completing Voices from Chernobyl, which I have since completed (btw--the documentary The Russian Woodpecker is a great follow-up to reading Voices).  I've just received a history of Ukraine, The Gates of  Europe, which I plan to work on during the Winter's Respite event.  I've also got an ARC of Stalin and the Scientists, which I've already begun, so I'll be working on that one as well.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Day 1--Bout of Books 18

I started off the morning reading Adam Bede and got about 70 pages in.  The middle of the day consisted of lots of family fun (last day of Christmas break!), so I didn't get any reading in.  (I also lost several games of Yahtzee and Settlers of Cataan, but that's besides the point.)

End of the day, I read some more of the extremely entertaining Hockey Night Fever--a great read for those who grew up, and fell in love, with hockey in the 1970s.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Bout of Books 18

New Year's Day is one of my favorite holidays because everything resets.  Year-long reading challenges are fantastic when you are on pace to succeed: in the years when that has been the case, I've really enjoyed reading throughout the fall.  When I've gotten behind early, as I did in 2016, however, I feel a growing sense of failure that only goes away when the year ends and new challenge begins.

That's where I am today:  start of another year-long challenge that I plan to complete.  The Bout of Books 18 challenge is a great way to get some momentum at the start of the challenge.  It begins tonight at 12:01 am and runs for a week.

In past reading marathons, I haven't been able to stay up to start at 12:01--tonight, I think I'm ready to read right at the start before sleep overwhelms me.

I plan to complete a couple of books I received for Christmas:  Voices from Chernobyl and the much lighter Hockey Night Fever.  I'll keep reading Gareth Stedman Jones' Karl Marx:  Greatness and Illusion and probably some random books I pick up during the week.  One project I've set for myself this year is to read a novel or two from a specific 19th-century novelist each month:  January is George Eliot month, so I will probably begin Adam Bede this week as well.