Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Istanbul Passage

by Joseph Kanon, Atria Books, May 2012

This was a good story but with a little more help to the reader it could have been great.

This mystery is set in post WWII Istanbul.  Leon Bauer an American is loosely involved in the tobacco trade and sometimes works for US intelligence.  The spotlight is leaving Istanbul, the war is over and where there had been a hotbed of spies for all the warring countries now only a few remain.  Most of the action is in smuggling European Jews into Palestine although the Cold War between the US and Russia is beginning.   Bauer assists the CIA in these post war activities..  An American intelligence officer asks Bauer to participate in the transfer of a Nazi collaborator, Alexei who is escaping through Istanbul from Russian hands to Washington for a debriefing.  The job of picking up this Nazi goes badly wrong and Bauer is placed in the middle of a complex plot unable to determine friend from enemy.

The novel’s title word passage has multiple meanings, not only the passage of the Jews through Istanbul and the problematic passage of the Nazi but also Bauer’s passage as he evaluates his involvement in rescuing persecutors such Alexei.  Additionally Alexei is also a character in transition who is surprising in some of his actions.

I thought that the author’s ability to describe the sights and sounds of post war Istanbul was excellent.  The maps provided in the inside cover of the book were really an assist to the action in the story.  I thought the characters were well developed and in particular Bauer was fully fleshed out as a real person with imperfections as well as principles.  The plot was unique and engaging with a terrific ending.  While I enjoyed this story I found it a difficult read.  The story is told primarily through the conversations of the characters so you are left with only their words to figure out what is going on – no easy task. I found myself often rereading sections.   I spent much of the book wondering if I had missed a key element in the plot.  I read a lot of spy stories and I have some ability to follow a complex plot but I struggled with this one.  This was a good book but with a little more help to the reader it could have been great.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Age of Miracles / The Leftovers

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, Random House June, 2012

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta, St. Martin's Press, June 2011

I thought I’d review these two dystopic/apocalyptic novels together because they explore similar themes.  In Miracles a young girl comes of age in a world that is slowly changing and perhaps ending as the earth’s rotation slows.  In Leftovers a young man, previously something of a slacker, matures as a significant portion of the population disappears from the earth. 
Some Spoilers
Leftovers is written almost as a social satire.  The characters are colorful and somewhat exaggerated.  The story starts five years after ‘The Rapture’. On one day over twenty per cent of the earth's population has disappeared.  Every race, religion and age group are represented in the losses.   Kevin Garvey is the mayor now and is trying to bring normalcy to a highly unusual situation.  Everyone has had family and friends disappear.  His wife has joined a new cult that vows silence, smokes constantly and looks to serve as a living reminder of god’s judgment.  His daughter has morphed from a normal high achieving high school student to a troubled rebellious teenager; his son Tom has left college to follow a fraudulent “prophet” Holy Wayne and his new girlfriend has lost all of her family in the disappearance.  Each of these characters provides fodder for the author to explore different responses to events and chart character transformations.  Unfortunately for me many of the characters including Kevin, lacked emotion in their response to events.  When characters are impassive I tend to care a whole lot less about what happens to them.  This story started very well, with an interesting premise and it contained some humorous sections but in the end it fell short I think because the author could not decide whether it was a character based story or a satire.  Not satisfying! 

Miracles is really a coming of age novel that is set during an apocalyptic time.  Julia is an eleven year old suburban girl when the story opens.  The earth’s rotation is slowing and the days are lengthening.  The author does an excellent job of describing through Julia’s eyes the impacts of this slowing. The sense of impending doom is supported with all of the detail provided.  The ocean’s whales die (very movingly), the trees die, crops fail, birds fall from the sky, the electric grid falters and some people develop a strange sickness.  The adults in the story while considerably unnerved try to provide a ‘normal’ life for Julia.  Despite all of this life goes on, Julia’s teenage years are centered on Seth Moreno a neighborhood boy she likes.  Her parents’ marriage totters but in the end stands. Her grandfather disappears.  Seth becomes her boyfriend and she grows up.  This was a well written interesting story.  The lead character Julia's love of life was well contrasted with all of the death around her.  Her voice very believable.  Julia grows and changes as the story progressives.  The ending was abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying although I would not have had a clue as to how to end this fascinating story.  Recommended

Saturday, September 15, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan

by Vaddey Ratner, Simon & Shuster, August 2012 
...the characters jump off of the page and into your heart.

This lyrical story is told from the viewpoint of Raami, a seven year old girl when the Khmer Rouge enter the capital of Cambodia and set up a new government in 1975.  Cambodia had been ruled for centuries by a monarchy whose members included Raami’s father a prince.  Raami and her father, who is a poet, have a very close relationship.  He teaches her using myths and stories set in the Buddhist tradition.  Raami recounts the events of this nightmare as they unfold for her family and the Cambodian people.  Initially the revolutionaries are seen as progressive intellectuals but soon become violent and unstable in their actions.  Raami’s family, her parents, younger sister, grandmother, uncle, aunts and two young cousins are made to leave their comfortable home in Phnom Penh.  Carrying very little they retreat to another home outside of the city.  As with all of the people of Cambodia their nightmare has just begun.  Over the next four years of the Khmers’ rule horrific things occur.  Loss of life is commonplace, hunger moving into starvation is the norm, uprooting and moving people occurs frequently and life as was known is almost entirely lost.  Spread throughout these horrors are stories of people who act very humanely in the face of this evil.  All of these events are seen through Raami’s eyes and told in her words.  Her father is separated from the family early in the story and Raami is deeply affected by his absence.  His memory and stories sustain her and her mother through their trials.   

This is my second genocide novel this month.  My last read was The Sand Castle Girls which dealt with the genocide in Armenia in 1915.  This book is very different and much more memorable.  In the Sand Castle Girls the story was well documented with historical events and detail interspersed throughout the story but the characters were fairly one dimensional.  In this story the characters jump off of the page and into your heart.  Seen from a child’s point of view this story lacks the historical detail that I enjoy but the depth of feeling expressed more than makes up for this.  I defy you to forget these people after you have read the section where Raami digs through the mud looking for beetles to eat because she is starving.  

While the book is fiction the story closely parallels the experience of the author, Vaddey Ratner who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital.  She lost most of her family in the next four years and ended up as a refugee in the US in 1981.   I hung on every word of the author interview at the end of the book.  There are many remarkable things about this story but one of them is that the author was able to tell such a moving, poetic story in English.  By 1995 she had graduated summa cum laude from Cornell – surely there is another book in this refugee success story.  Ratner was quoted as saying she wrote this fictional memoir to “give voice to her father’s memory and the memory of all of the others who were silenced”.  She has done this and much more, highly recommended.

I read an advanced readers copy of the novel provided by the publisher.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Sand Castle Girls

by Chris Bohjelian, Doubleday, July 2012

...a satisfactory story, the history told is excellent but in the end not the great novel it could have been.

This novel is set in Aleppo Syria in 1915.  It tells the story of the Turkish slaughter of the Armenian population.  At the end of the Ottoman Empire the Turks took the opportunity to “cleanse” their country of Christian Armenians.  The genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians in the middle of the desert between Turkey and Syria is as the author calls it ‘the slaughter you know nothing about’.  This story is narrated in the present time by Laura, granddaughter of the main characters.  Laura, a novelist starts on a journey to know the experiences of her grandparents in Syria in 1915
SPOILERS  Elizabeth Endicott, a wealthy independent young Bostonian girl accompanies her father to Aleppo in 1915 to do relief work in the Armenian refugee camps. She lives in the relative safety of the American compound but works with the refugees using her basic nursing skills.  Through the refugees' stories we learn of the horrors of this genocide.  While doing this work she meets Armen, a young engineer who has suffered the loss of his wife and young daughter in the slaughter.  They fall in love.  He leaves Aleppo and joins the British army.  He is involved in the disastrous British defeat in Gallipoli.  There are a number of characters that surround Armen and Elizabeth in this story.  Elizabeth’s father is an arch type New England do gooder, out to help the Armenians but not really know them.  The American consul in Aleppo is a strong character working to help the refugees at risk of life and limb.  Through the characters Navurt a young Armenian women whose husband was killed and Hatoun a small child who watched her family as they were beheaded the author personalizes the slaughter.

This novel did not quite do it for me.  I am usually predisposed to love historical fiction like this.  It is a big story relating historical events that were gripping.   The story did fell short for two reasons.  First there was not tension as to how it would end.  The presence of the main characters granddaughter Laura let you know early that these people survived and ended up in America.  So no suspense there no matter how dangerous things got.  The second shortfall was far more serious.  These characters did not live up to the story.  They were one dimensional and worse still uninteresting.  Elizabeth starts as a strong girl with a mind of her own and never grows from that presentation.  Armen also is hard to know and see growth in.  From his earlier work the author is a master of character development and growth so it is really surprising to me that this weakness exists in this story. Bohjalian has created characters that jump from the pages and grab your heart – see Midwives, Double Blind.  This is certainly a satisfactory story, the history told is excellent but in the end not the great novel it could have been.

I read a copy of this novel that I borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia