Saturday, December 31, 2011

little seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a... fairy tale? Maybe fable is a better term. But somehow that doesn't seem right either, because when I think about what happens in this pretty little story by Dia Sijie, it seems magical--almost dreamlike--but that must be due to the telling and the subject matter. The story takes place in the rural mountains of China, where the author was sent as a young man to live for 3 or 4 years in a Maoist re-education camp. Dia Sijie was inspired by his time in the re-education camp to spin this yarn about two young men who lived in a mountain village for three years. The surrealism of life in a re-education camp in the 70s is just so foreign to western readers, that it adds to the fancifulness of the story.

According to the bio, Dia emigrated to France not long after his stint in the camp. This story is actually translated by Ina Rilke from the French.

Without knowing how the story was originally told in French, I found no problems with the translation. The story is narrated in the first person from the POV of one of the young men sent to the camp for being the son of reactionaries, with the exception of a few chapters, told in the first person by a couple of the other characters. Dia also speaks directly to the reader occasionally a la Alexandre Dumas.

What I do find odd is both the title and the cover image chosen for the soft cover English translation I read. I can imagine some mid-level conference room discussion full of overwrought, consumer targeting, clarification minded, trying-to-hard conversation that results in this title. Why the word 'Chinese?' Aren't all Chinese seamstresses Chinese? Its like ordering Chinese food in China. But after looking, I found that this imagined conversation took place one country removed. The original title is Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise. The cover photo just looks like an attempt to capitalize on the success and recognition of some other Asian based books that have done well recently. Who is the child these shoes are supposed to belong to? The little seamstress perhaps? spoiler! nope.

Regardless, Dia has penned a story that is touching, sensual, real and full of subtle imagery that may be rooted in his first love: directing movies.

Read this book.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

drink before the war

I read another Dennis Lenhane novel a year or so ago with the same characters as this book. Lehane has used the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro private investigative team in a number of his books I understand, and after reading these two, I can see why. The characters have a lot of depth, history and both their banter and their relationship has the tang of reality to it. So good on you Dennis Lehane.

I picked this novel up, and another one like it at the local library's used book sale. My wife read both of them and enjoyed, so I'm giving them a go, but after reading this one, I'm switching to something else first--maybe a few things--before I read another one. Lehane's novels are fast paced and intense. I stayed up ay past my bedtime reading last night and had to give up and go to sleep with 4 or 5 chapters left. I need something a little more relaxing before picking up another Lehane novel.

As I mentioned in my review of Gone Baby, Gone, I'm sure that I'm reading these Kenzie/Gennaro novels out of order because of the history that keeps popping up. It could be that Lehane is just creating backstory, but I don't think that's always the case. A Drink Before the War was written in 1994, but I don't know where in the sequence of other books it sits.

The mystery that Kenzie and Gennaro need to unravel has both high connections and low connections, running from the political leaders in Boston to the gang leaders in Roxbury. The plot and sub-plots work well together and Lehane has the local dialect down, but he's either better connected to the bad business in Boston, or he's more pessimistic that I am, or... I could simple be one of the sleepy suburbanites that Lehane speaks about through his characters, and I've just been missing it.

In any case, Lehane doesn't pull any punches when it comes to violence, depravity or the dark side of the human psyche but I didn't get the feeling that any of it was gratuitous. So, yeah, I'll read the other one I picked up. And I'll be on the look out for more at the used book sale.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


I just finished Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt, based on a recommendation from my son. I bought the book for him a year or so ago, and he actually read it! And then told me it was good. So its been sitting in the read pile for a while.

Tom Holt reminds me a little of Christopher Moore, which I'm sure both he and Moore love, but what are you going to do? They probably show up on read-alike lists but the stories I've read by Moore have been re-tellings, while this story was a new thing. I think Holt is from Australia, or New Zealand or something so his English has a British tinge to it, or I guess I should say, an Australian or New Zealand tinge, right? I could look it up but...naaahhh. Regardless, Holt is a funny man.

So what is this story? Its says right there on the back cover that its about about smart bomb set to blow up the earth. So I guess you'd call it Sci Fi, or SF, which in this case could also stand for silly fun. The story is well plotted and paced, with some interesting sub-plots weaving through, and just when you think it can't get any crazier, its does. And then after a few pages I found myself thinking, Yeah, makes sense.

I'll keep my eye out for more Tom Holt.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

ghost writer

I've only just read my first Philip Roth story, and then along comes this one at the local library book sale. The Ghost Writer is from 1979--coincidentally, the same year as the last book I read; The Black Tower--and is the first in a short series of books about Nathan Zuckerman, an up and coming writer from Newark, New Jersey.

This short novel (novella?) or even long short-story, is written first person from Zuckerman's POV and is therefore rings as at least somewhat autobiographical. Whether or not this is true, any more than any work of fiction is partially autobiographical, I really don't know, but Roth's observations of people, their mannerisms, and his carefully crafted sentences shined in this little story.

I read this book TODAY! And I don't read books in a day. Ever.

"Her luminous, shameless presence in the very front row (and her white jersey dress; and her golden hair, out of some rustic paradise) led me to recall October afternoons half a lifetime ago when I sat like a seething prisoner, practicing my penmanship at my sloping school desk while the World Series was being broadcast live to dinky radios in every gas station in America."

Sentences like this are what prevented this book being put down. I'll be prowling the library book sales and stacks for more Philip Roth now.

Read this book.

Friday, December 16, 2011

black tower

I've never read P.D. James before; the old broad's got some fire in 'er belly! is it wrong to say that?

The Black Tower is carefully woven--maybe intricately woven is better--right up until the end. Unless I missed something, our man Dalgliesh forms an hypothesis based on nothing, for one small element in this mystery. I encourage you to read this, if only so that you can 'splain to me how he pulls this little rabbit out of his hat.

Now I'm not complaining (so much.) I understand that writing a complex mystery is, you know, complex. And frankly, based on how well the story is written, I'm guessing that it was in fact me that missed the clues about this niggling little bit that caught in my teeth.

James writes in a very tight language, that assumes her audience is quick and well read. Bully on that, dear lady. What, what? The text is however peppered with words that are either Englishisms or just a cut above your average vocab (and my Dictionary is in need of repair, therefore not as ready to hand.)

image: Cavell Tower, 1830. the inspiration for The Black Tower

Huge (relative term) cast of characters here, at this wind swept coastal Grange*, and a little confusing. There's four or five ladies that are 40s to 60s, described as starting to gray, graying or gray, all vaguely unhappy and with a axe to grind, and thereby not above suspicion. Two of them are patients at the Grange, two work there, and three of their names start with the letter M. This was true of some of the male characters too. And they all vaguely played the same roll, so I couldn't keep them straight, and maybe it didn't really matter. It was like the Quenta Silmarillion there for a bit. Finrod is the son of Finarfin, and Fingon is the son of Fingolfin, right?

I picked this book up used at the library, and I would certainly grab another if it shows, or borrow one of the other Commander Dalgliesh novels in the series. James has written a bunch of detective novels.

* Another Englishism: Chiefly British A farm, especially the residence and outbuildings of a gentleman farmer.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

bookmark this

This one is a hoot!

This bookmark is from Highsmith, copyright 1992. So, in computer years, those beige bombers are from like... 228 years ago! If you'll step into the WABAC Machine Sherman, we'll just zip back to 1992 and see what was happening in Computerland in 1992.

According to Computer Hope, a bunch of crap happened that was cool and zippy, and then encoded in meaningless acronyms so you or I will never understand it. Some of things I could understand included: Microsoft introduced Windows 3.1, and it sold more than 1 million copies within the first two months of its release, and IBM introduced the ThinkPad with a 25 MHz 486 processor and a 120 MB hard drive! Yeah, I can feel the power.

Does ANYONE have a computer like this sitting around anymore? With a fat 386 processor, and a black and white CRT? Awesome.

Libraries Compute, indeed.

Friday, December 9, 2011

age of wonder iii

In what is maybe a corollary for the scientific time period in question, The Age of Wonder started out riveting, and ended a little sluggishly. The Age of Wonder began in youthful exuberance, mellowed to dogged determination with an eye to the future, and ends with the deaths of some of the lions of science and the squabbles of the young bucks, who without their strong leaders, bicker about the future of science, and their scientific organization: the Royal Society.

Image: Engraving by John Cochran (1821-1865) of a portrait of Michael Faraday in his late thirties, painted by Henry Pickersgill (1782-1875)

So I chose Michael Faraday as the image for this third and final entry about The Age of Wonder, but not because he is the focus of the end of the book--he showed up a number of times during the second half, but only around the periphery--I chose Faraday instead because he represents the future of science as The Age of Wonder draws to a close. Faraday is still young(ish) at the end of Richard Holmes's tour through Romantic Science in England, and represents the hope Holmes wants us to see in science. he's also not one of the squabblers

As an aside, Holmes treats Faraday with such a delicate touch, dropping just enough about him to peak the reader's interest, and then leaving us unfulfilled, that it makes a reader wonder when the Michael Faraday book will be published. Hmm...

The overall arc of this book reminds me a little of the month of March (In like a lion...) Holmes points out that this age has a beginning and an end, and this is simply the end. It doesn't just fizzle of course. Science marches on to where we are today, but the end of this era is marked with a kind of watering down of the exuberance and newness of discovery with which it opened. Is that real, or is it a function of the way Holmes has framed his story? I have no idea.

In the end, I've come away knowing a lot more about the era, and surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. and how quickly I read it... you know, for me.

Read this book. And take notes.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

age of wonder ii

I could almost wait until I'm done for this one, but this book is so jam-packed with great stuff. I may have mentioned before how much the style of this book reminds me of John Adams: its a great mixture of history, biography, and in this case science, to tell a really compelling story.

Image: Joseph Banks, lately back from his South Seas travels.

I've included this image of Joseph Banks not only because he is the subject of the first chapter, but because he is leading figure in the storyline; a kind of common thread that runs through the chapters, linking together the cast of characters. What makes Banks so compelling is his undying enthusiasm for science and discovery. He is always pushing forward, striving to make science more expansive, more relevant, and better understood.

An interesting fashion of the time I really had no idea about was how interested in science some of the famous writers of the day were. Poetry and writing were obviously very big during this era, and many of the scientists Richard Holmes writes about, were amateur poets as well, and would often include poetry in their scientific writings, often to help illustrate a point or explain complex scientific ideas in more layman-like terms. But the famous poets and writers who fraternized with the scientific community and used what they learned by reading, attending lectures, and their discussions over dinners, was really surprising to me.

We've gone from botany, anthropology, astronomy, and ballooning, to chemistry and electricity, to Shelley's writing of Frankenstein, and there is still a big chunk left to go!