Search Tzer Island

The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexlusive focus is on literary/mainsteam fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.


The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson

Published in Sweden in 2011; published in translation by Hogarth on July 12, 2016

If Kafka had a sense of humor, if he had been less dark and gloomy, he might have written The Invoice. The novel imagines a scenario in which irrational rules are imposed and people have no choice but to follow them without understanding why. But unlike Kafka’s Josef K, the bureaucrats in The Invoice are only too happy to explain his obligations to the novel’s narrator, although in terms he can’t possibly understand. Of course, every time the narrator meets with the bureaucrats, his efforts to make things better only worsen his predicament.

The Invoice is Jonas Karlsson’s latest contribution to the field of absurdist literature, following The Room. While The Room is darkly amusing, The Invoice is brightly amusing. It is a novel that reminds us to value all the small things that make us happy, notwithstanding the bureaucrats who make a mission of impeding joy.

The unnamed narrator of The Invoice receives a bill for 5.7 million kroner. He doesn’t know what the bill is for, but he is confident that he didn’t incur the debt. He also knows he doesn’t have 5.7 million kroner. After he gets a second bill, he calls the number on the invoice and after a long wait, speaks to a live person who tells him that he is being billed for the experiences that have made him happy. It seems as if Sweden has a happiness tax, although it’s actually being implemented worldwide. An interesting idea, although in the United States an anger tax would probably generate more revenue.

The narrator’s problem is that he isn’t angry often enough, and so has incurred a huge debt for the things (like sunshine) that make him happy. With a job in a video rental store and no girlfriend, it doesn’t seem as though he should have accrued such a large debt. He’s so desperate for female companionship, in fact, that he develops a crush on the administrator he keeps phoning to discuss his inability to pay the debt. One of the novel’s points, I think, is that it’s possible to make a connection with another person under even the most unlikely circumstances.

Like The Room, The Invoice pokes fun at cabined, bureaucratic thinking. But it also sends a life-affirming message. The narrator really doesn’t realize he’s happy, even denies that he’s happy, because he has chosen not to take advantage of opportunities to be happy. He is a slave to habitual behavior. He lacks the spontaneity to seize the moment. He goes with the flow. He envies people who have the ability to “look after themselves and sort things out.” Forced to think about his easy, uneventful life, he concludes “it’s pretty damn tragic.”

At the same time, it is exactly those traits that have caused his tax debt to mount. He doesn’t crave money. He doesn’t care that he has a dead-end job. He doesn’t worry that he has too few friends. He came through a break-up without feeling bad about himself. He’s content when he eats a combination of mint chocolate and raspberry ice cream, when he breathes in the mild summer air. To other Swedes, the narrator might seem dull and unambitious, but The Invoice seems to suggest that those traits are worth cultivating if they help us appreciate the joy of life’s simplest pleasures.



The Mayakovsky Tapes by Robert Littell

Published by Thomas Dunne Books on November 22, 2016

Robert Littell has written some excellent spy novels. Be warned: The Mayakovsky Tapes is not a spy novel. I’m not sure what it is.

The narrator of The Mayakovsky Tapes tells us that he smuggled recordings out of Soviet Russia in 1955 that, at the age of 86, he feels safe revealing to public. In the post-Soviet age, he assumes, few people remember the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The novel purports to be transcriptions of discussions that took place in 1953 with four of Mayakovsky’s lovers.

According to Wikipedia, Mayakovsky’s work “regularly demonstrated ideological and patriotic support for the ideology of the Communist Party” before the Revolution and for some time thereafter. His relationship with the Soviet system became less sanguine toward the end of the 1920s, as he confronted cultural censorship and the government’s support of “Socialist realism” as the Soviet Union’s preferred art form.

The women knew Mayakovsky at different times in the 1920s. Mayakovsky met Lilya Brik while she was married to Osip Brik, who became Mayakovsky’s publisher. Mayakovsky met Osip when they served together after being drafted in 1916. Mayakovsky later began living with the couple and, with Osip’s tacit approval, had an affair with Lilya. As Lilya explains it, he was one of several lovers Lilya entertained during the course of her open marriage.

Mayakovsky traveled to New York in 1925 to give a poetry reading. There he met and began a secret affair with Russian émigré Elly Jones, a model and interpreter. According to the novel, they were inseparable for eight weeks.

In 1928, Mayakovsky visited Paris and met another Russian émigré, Tatiana Yakovleva, who was working as a model for Chanel. Tatiana explains that she refused to give up her virginity to Mayaskovsky despite his protestations of love and proposals of marriage, although she considered their relationship to be deeply intimate.

Mayakovsky’s last lover of the four was Nora (Veronica) Polonskaya, an actress in Russia with whom he had an affair at the end of the decade. At that point, Mayakovsky had fallen out of favor with the Soviet government and was being openly belittled by audiences who accepted the Soviet propaganda that condemned him as an elitist.

The bare facts of Mayakovsky’s love life can be gleaned from the historical record (i.e., Wikipedia), so the question is whether the novel adds something of artistic value to the cold facts. During much of the novel, the women debate Mayakovsky’s personality, his talents as a lover and poet, and his fate. The women have each shared some form of intimacy with the poet, and a certain cattiness predictably erupts at regular intervals during the recordings. That’s not enough to carry a story. In fact, nothing approaching a story develops as the women chat about their respective relationships with Mayakovsky. At least, nothing like an interesting story develops.

At the two-thirds point, I was wondering whether Littell had changed the course of his writing career by choosing to write the sexual biography of a Russian poet rather than a spy novel. I was heartened when Littell took a break from the four women to reveal the imagined contents of Mayakovsky’s GPU file (which reads much like Mayakovsky’s Wikipedia page), but apart from a recommendation that Mayakovsky be shortened by the length of a head, the file adds little to the reader’s knowledge.

Fans of historical celebrity name dropping might enjoy mentions of Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keeffe and various American jazz musicians and Russian poets and artists. Fans of Russian history might enjoy the account of Pasternak berating Mayakovsky for supporting the Revolution long after it became clear that Stalin was not true to its goals. Fans of good storytelling will need to look elsewhere.

Considering that the novel consists of nothing but dialog, my first complaint is that none of the dialog seems natural. Littell is a good prose stylist, but people don’t speak as if their words were written by a good prose stylist. My second complaint is that the novel is of academic interest but stirs no passion (except, perhaps, for fans of Mayakovsky’s poetry, if any still exist). My final complaint is that listening to four women praise and condemn the poet they spent time with just isn’t compelling fiction.



Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino

First published in Japan in 1999; published in translation by Minotaur Books on November 8, 2016

Under the Midnight Sun begins in the early 1970s and covers a span of two decades. It jumps forward in increments, each early chapter beginning a few years after the last one ends. Some chapters feature relationship drama while others focus on crime or shady business dealings. Each early chapter reads like a separate story, although they intertwine. The relationship of some characters to others only becomes clear as the novel enters its second half. Characters come and go, but two characters, Ryo Kirihara and Yukiho Karasawa, bind the others together.

Ryo is ten when the novel begins. His father, a pawnshop owner, is stabbed to death. Detective Sasagaki develops suspects — Ryo’s mother might or might not be having an affair with a pawnshop employee — but the cops cannot find enough evidence to make an arrest. They aren’t even sure they know the motive for the murder, although Ryo’s father had withdrawn a large amount of cash shortly before he was killed.

The story resumes four years later. After her impoverished mother died, Yukiho was adopted into a middle-class life. She seems to be a sweet, gentle, and friendly, a perfect example of Japanese femininity. Her delicate beauty attracts the attention of undesirable admirers, and eventually of men who have some family wealth. She is thte novel’s most intriguing character.

Another plotline involves bored housewives who pay to hook up for sexual adventures with high school boys. One of the boys is Tomohiko Sonomura, who eventually regards Ryo as his best friend. Still another plot thread involves Yukiho’s friend, a girl named Eriko, who transforms from a duckling to a sexy swan with the help (and money) of Kazunari Shinozuka. Eriko and Kazumari later return to the story at different times and in different ways.

Parts of the story amount to a police procedural as Sasagaki methodically pursues leads, conducts surveillance, interviews witnesses, and develops suspects in the murder of Ryo’s father. Parts of the story touch on organized crime as the yakuza take an interest in criminal schemes that some of the novel’s characters perpetrate. Some of the story features dark domestic drama as characters pay a heavy price for caring about — or betraying — other characters.

Keigo Higashino’s non-criminal characters tend to be introspective. Most of them are relatively dissatisfied with life. Readers who feel a need to identify with or like a main character might be unhappy with Under the Midnight Sun, as there are few characters a reader might care to know. I don’t view that as a flaw in a plot-centered crime novel, given that the darkly realistic characters have at least a modest amount of depth.

The plot takes time to develop, but interest never wanes thanks to the mini-dramas that shape each chapter on the way to laying out the larger story. Fans of fast action might be bored by Under the Midnight Sun, as the intricate story includes no shootouts or fistfights. Killings and assaults generally occur offstage. Fans of a good mystery should enjoy it. Much of the ending is foreshadowed, but the final pages hold some surprises.

It’s always interesting to read a Japanese crime novel, if only to take note of cultural differences in the story’s background. Udon (noodle) shops, funeral rituals, and tatami mats are among the details that establish the story’s setting. The background, the carefully constructed plot, and the mysterious nature of the key characters makes Under the Midnight Sun an excellent example of Japanese crime fiction.



Black Widow by Christopher Brookmyre

First published in Great Britain in 2016; published by Atlantic Monthly Press on November 1, 2016

Jack Parlabane is an investigative journalist who, as series readers will recall, is not always on good terms with the government. Or, for that matter, with newspaper editors. He’s looking to get back in the game when Peter Elphinstone’s sister asks him to investigate Peter’s presumed death. Also investigating is PC Ali Kazmi. Making an occasional cameo is DS Catherine McLeod, who stars in another series of books by Scottish novelist Christopher Brookmyre.

Peter’s car went off the road and into a river. Perhaps Peter had an accident, but if he was murdered, the prime suspect is his wife, Diane Jager. Diane is a surgeon who, for a time, blogged about sexism in the medical profession. She blogged anonymously until her blog was hacked and her identity exposed. She experienced blowback due to unfortunate things she said about her colleagues, who were easily identified once her identity was made known.

Jager blamed the fiasco on her employer’s IT technicians, who failed to protect her from hackers. Yet she married Peter, an IT tech, a few years later. Peter was estranged from his father, who happens to be a wealthy and politically connected man from whom Peter was destined to inherit nothing.

Brookmyre does a nice job of showing both Diana’s perspective on her marriage (in the first person) and her husband’s perspective (as filtered through people who knew him). The clever ways in which Brookmyre presents and withholds information make the reader sympathize with one spouse and then the other, without really knowing whether either of them are worth the sympathy. That continues throughout the novel and is, I think, the key to the story’s success. Readers who like clear-cut heroes and villains might dislike Black Widow for that reason, but the ambiguity contributed to my unwavering interest in the story.

Satisfying twists at the end confirm that the journey is worth taking. Some aspects of the ending I managed to guess, but key details came as a true surprise. Whether it was entirely believable is another question, but the story never goes so far over the top as to become outrageously implausible.

Although this is a Parlabane novel, Parlabane is almost a secondary character for most of the story. Early chapters focus on Diane and Peter and their acquaintances. There isn’t as much drama in Parlabane’s life in this novel as in the last one, although he endures a bit of personal drama before the story is over. Parlabane regains center stage toward the end, but Brookmyre’s decision to underplay his role gives the other characters a chance to develop. Brookmyre is a masterful crime writer and Black Widow is a deft performance, both in plot development and in convincing characterizations.



The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is the last of five "Vintage Shorts" that Tzer Island received for review. Other essays in the series were reviewed this week (on Tuesday) and last week (on Tuesday) and two weeks ago (on Tuesday and Thursday).

Published by Vintage on November 15, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri begins this essay (originally delivered as a lecture) by describing school uniforms as providing students with both an identity and anonymity. She envied her uniformed cousins in Calcutta because, as an Indian student in America, she did not share a group identity and could not blend in with her surroundings. Asserting individuality with clothing was a vexing problem. Clothing therefore carries a special meaning for her, even into adulthood, and it is the clothing of her books, more commonly known as dust jackets or paperback covers, that is the subject of her essay.

“If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening.” The jacket is a marketing tool. Lahiri frets that the jacket reflects how its designers see the book (which is rarely the way Lahiri sees it), although I suspect the reality is that most art departments don’t read the book before designing the jacket. Lahiri has a particularly visceral reaction to jackets and covers, because just as “the right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel through the world,” the wrong one is “cumbersome, suffocating.” Given that she was born in America and lives in Italy, Lahiri particularly disfavors stereotyped covers that depict elephants and scenes from India. That’s understandable.

The most interesting aspect of the essay is the observation that covers may create false expectations (particularly if a gullible reader believes the blurbs). A naked book conveys no expectations at all and may therefore allow the reader to approach the content with a more open mind. Lahiri hates blurbs for the simple reason that she wants readers to read her own words, not the words of a blurb writer or an editor who wrote the synopsis on the inside flaps of the dust jacket. I can’t blame her for that, particularly when the synopsis and blurbs are so often disconnected from the content of the book.

The Clothing of Books is a well-written essay but not a particularly enlightening one. It’s fairly well known that authors usually have little control over covers and dust jackets and often dislike the choices made by their publishers. Lahiri recognizes that the purpose of a cover is to sell books, not to please the author (although a cover that successfully sells books should please the author for reasons that are financial, if not aesthetic). Still, the essay seems a bit too self-absorbed and self-satisfied as Lahiri laments the inability of book covers to reflect what is truly special about her words.

I am, however, taken with Lahiri’s observation that European publishing houses are more likely to use similar covers on books by different authors, giving those books a sense of being part of the same family, while American book covers (unless reprinting a series of classics) reflect the diversity and individuality that characterize the country (school uniforms not being favored by American students).

Devoted readers will read pretty much anything that is related to the process of writing, however tangentially. To those readers (and I count myself among them), I give this essay a guarded recommendation.