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 nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream 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.

Monday
Feb042019

The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

Published in Spain in 2018; published in translation by Penguin Press on February 5, 2019

The Spirit of Science Fiction is an early novel that foreshadows Roberto Bolaño's later and stronger work. It was published posthumously.

While the novel begins with the interview of a writer who has won an award for his book of poetry, most of the novel is set in the past. Jan Schrella is a 17-year-old unpublished writer of science fiction, living in Mexico City with Remo. Jan is Chilean and, as he writes in a letter to Ursula K. LeGuin, Remo also “claims to be from Chile.” The story eventually suggests that Jan is Bolaño’s alter ego, although Remo is the novel’s narrator and main character. The Spirit of Science Fiction certainly has the feel of a fictionalized autobiography, although one wonders whether there might be more of Bolaño in Remo than in Jan.

Remo scrapes out a living writing book reviews and magazine articles about historic crimes. Their parents contribute the rest of their living expenses. Remo socializes while Jan writes letters to science fiction editors and writers. Some are fan letters, some recount his dreams, some contain ideas for stories, some ask the writers to pay attention to Latin America.

To alleviate his boredom (and because this is a Bolaño novel), Remo begins to attend a poetry workshop. There seems to have been an explosion of poetry workshops in Mexico, or maybe that’s just a rumor started by a mimeographed cultural weekly they get from a mysterious woman named Estrellita, who might be a poet and might be living with a son who is an artist, although the details of Estrellita’s life might also be based on rumor. In any event, Remo and José Arco decide to investigate the state of Mexican poetry. They find clues in graffiti. They listen to a professor discuss fate and the lack of meaning in poetry magazines, a discussion that provokes Remo, who believes that South Americans from poor countries are motivated by pride in their national poetry.

Remo meets and instantly feels romantic inclinations toward a woman named Laura, in the tradition of Latin men of romance (within hours of meeting her, she is “gradually turning into everyone and everything”). He pronounces his love for her before the evening is done, while she ponders how to break the news to her boyfriend. Yet Remo can’t get an erection because, paradoxically, their first kiss is too intimate a time for love-making.

Enigmatic characters populate Remo’s life, all of whom seem to have a hidden intellect and a desire to write poetry, including the toothless young mechanic who sells him a stolen motorcycle named Aztec Princess and the woman who complains that Jan has disrespected literature by constructing a table from science fiction paperbacks. The characters and their actions often have a surrealistic feel.

In the novel’s last section, Remo and Laura explore Mexican bathhouses and the erotic (or not) possibilities they inspire when strangers knock on the door. The ending comes across as Bolaño deciding he needed to end the story somewhere, but it abandons all the other characters, giving that section of the story a disconnected feel. Still, the lives of the characters and the atmosphere that Bolaño creates make it easy to recommend The Spirit of Science Fiction, perhaps as a prelude to his outstanding The Savage Detectives.

RECOMMENDED

Friday
Feb012019

The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on November 13, 2018

I didn’t know what a gloomy guy Jonathan Franzen is until I read The End of the End of the Earth. There’s no point in having a bucket list, he says, because it won’t change the fact that you’re going to die. Well, okay, but seeing every bird you possibly can before you die won’t change the fact that you’re going to die, and I’m not sure how Franzen squares that obsession with his rejection of bucket lists, except for his impression that bucket listers want to cheat death by “strategic vacationing.” I don’t have a bucket list but I’ve taken a lot of vacations, and I always thought they had something to do with enjoying life rather than cheating death. Maybe if the buckets are filled with birds, Franzen would have more use for them. Or maybe he’s just the kind of guy who sees the bucket as half empty rather than half full.

Franzen starts this essay collection by telling the reader that the “pure” essay, the personal exploration of an idea, is an extinct form, in part because subjectivity is the new norm in reportage, reviews, and even literature, which increasingly conflates fiction with autobiography. In an essay that explores the idea of essays, Franzen contrasts the subjective opinions of bloggers and activists on the left and right — the people who claim “the right not to hear things that upset them and to shout down ideas that offend them” — with essays that, like the best literature, invite you “to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.”

Franzen pushed my buttons from time to time, and I’ll gladly acknowledge that he might be right and I might be wrong. Maybe it really is too late to avert climate change and we should stop pretending that environmental doom is avoidable (although misplaced hope, in my view, is a necessary motivational tool to even incremental policy changes). To his credit, Franzen admits that he might be wrong, that maybe the focus should be on climate change deniers, a conclusion he pondered while writing and then abandoning an essay about birds. He eventually converted the essay to one about finding meaning in improving a world that is coming to an end. That’s a perspective I hadn’t considered. Inviting readers to consider new perspectives is an essayist’s greatest gift.

Most of these essays in this collection touch on Franzen’s love of bird watching and the anxiety it produces. I couldn’t tell from reading Freedom whether Franzen was on the side of birds or cats (fans of both are excoriated in the novel), but now I know. Franzen has a passion for birds. Cats, not so much.

Franzen makes an inspired defense of the ethical imperative to protect the environment in order to protect birds. I suppose one could translate that to an argument for saving all habitats to protect all wildlife, and for that matter oceans and possibly even places where people and their dogs might dwell.

One essay discusses the impact of unregulated hunting on bird populations in Albania and Egypt. Another discusses his frenzied attempt to see all the possible birds in a couple of Caribbean islands. His birdwatching trip to East Africa sparks his gloomy condemnation of bucket lists and tourism (because the world doesn’t need another picture of a giraffe, as opposed to, I don’t know, another sighting of a bird?). One of the more interesting bird essays discusses the decline of seabird populations and the simple ways that fishing fleets can avoid killing birds by accident. And the end of the end of the Earth turns out to be Antarctica, which has glorious penguins, although the essay morphs into a gloomy discussion of death before it becomes an amusing take on expensive tours to places most people don’t want to go. I’m glad Franzen went there and described the trip so that I can cross it off my bucket list as a vicarious trip taken.

Franzen writes about his personal experience with (and contribution to) the gentrification (and whitening) of New York City. He shares Sherry Turkle’s concern that smart phones and social media are reducing empathy. He dissects friendships (Bill Vollman and David Foster Wallace). In an essay about Sarah Stolfa’s photographs of patrons in a Philadelphia bar, he talks about the miserable lonely year he spent in Philadelphia. Being lonely and miserable is an undercurrent to many of the essays, but not to the same extent as his love of bird watching.

One of the most interesting essays addresses how readers feel about books when they cannot sympathize with the author, and how authors make readers sympathize with characters who are in many ways unsympathetic. He uses Edith Wharton and her novels to advance both discussions, but he also points to a string of unsympathetic characters (from the murderer Raskolnikov to the sociopath Tom Ripley to the pedophile Humbert Humbert) to whom the reader feels drawn, perhaps as a function of “the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples.” I think Franzen explained my love of crime novels that focus on criminals rather than good guys.

Bird watchers will probably love this collection. I grew a bit weary of the bird themes, but there are enough non-avian essays to make the book worthwhile for readers with more generalized interests.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Jan302019

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

First published in Korea; published in translation by Doubleday on January 29, 2019

If you want someone dead in South Korea, you hire a plotter, who plans the assassination. The plotter gives the plan to a contractor who supplies an assassin. Since the assassin doesn’t know who paid for the murder, that hierarchy protects the person who hires the plotter. And since plotters never use their real name, the police cannot find them even if they catch the assassin and are inclined to climb the hierarchal ladder. That, anyway, is the premise underlying The Plotters.

According to a key character in Un-Su Kim’s novel, everyone who holds any sort of power in South Korea knows a plotter. That key character has a plan to change the system. The novel’s protagonist, Reseng, doesn’t believe the system can be changed, but Reseng is a fatalist.

Reseng is also an assassin. He works for Old Racoon, a librarian who is a long-time contractor. Reseng was adopted and raised by Old Racoon, along with Trainer, who taught him his skills, and Hanja, who is now in competition with Old Racoon.

Reseng taught himself to read in the library. He learned from Achilles the importance of protecting your weak spot. His friend Chu’s weak spot was a young prostitute he decided not to kill. To punish his failure, assassins were hired to kill Chu until he became proactive and decided to take out the assassins. Now someone is trying to kill Reseng. Learning who, and then why, is Reseng’s mission during the novel’s second half. A brewing war between Old Racoon and Hanja also contributes to Reseng’s grief.

Reseng doesn’t have compassion for his victims, but he has a detached curiosity when he interacts with them. Reseng feels a stronger attachment to his cats, Desk and Lampshade, than he feels to any person. He feels no guilt or remorse when he kills, but he comes home drained of energy and purpose. He has an interesting mix of character traits, making him the kind of philosophical protagonist who can carry a crime novel that focuses on the criminal’s point of view.

The story recounts some of Reseng’s backstory, including a former girlfriend and a factory job that could be the story of man anywhere in the world living an ordinary working-class life. Only by living as an ordinary person does Reseng discover his true nature. Ironically, one of his associates strives for ordinariness, to be a person who will go unremembered, because it is the safest way to live. The burning question as the novel progresses is whether Reseng will learn to be ordinary again. Whatever the answer to that question might be, the lesson is that “a life not spent asking yourself what you truly love is a cowardly life.”

The Plotters is interesting for its political perspective, particularly its explanation about how the overthrow of military dictatorships and the rise of democracy might open the door to an assassination industry. The novel is also notable for the complexity of its characters: the assassin-raising librarian who has more respect for the innate knowledge of dogs than he has for human scholarship; the friendless Reseng, whose childhood taught him nothing beyond apathy; deadly women who have humane agendas despite their reliance on murder to achieve their goals.

The mystery behind the apparent attempt to assassinate Reseng is a good one, reflecting Kim’s careful attention to the details of storytelling. Dialog is clever and covers unexpected ground. The ending is unexpected but fitting. The combination of plot, characterization, and philosophy makes The Plotters a good choice for fans of international crime fiction.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Jan282019

Judgment by Joseph Finder

Published by Dutton on January 29, 2019

Judge Juliana Brody cheats on her husband at a legal conference with a fellow named Matias Sanchez. They agree it will be a one-night fling. Back in Boston, Brody is presiding over a sexual harassment case that a woman brought against a ride-sharing company. On her first day back in court, a new lawyer is added to the company’s defense team. Yes, it’s Sanchez, who wants rulings in the harassment case to favor the defendant and threatens publication of salacious videos if the judge doesn’t cooperate. In particular, the defense wants her to dismiss the case so it doesn’t need to disclose a damaging document.

The premise is thin. Rather than blackmailing the judge, the corporation could easily follow the standard corporate procedure of pretending the document doesn’t exist. Or it could give the former employee an apology, an admission of wrongdoing, and a ton of money to settle the case to keep the document from coming to light. The availability of less risky options makes the blackmail threat seems awfully contrived.

Brody’s husband is a law professor who may or may not have dallied with one of his students a few years earlier, but Brody doesn’t want to reveal her indiscretion and potentially ruin her marriage. She’s even more concerned about damaging her career, which seems destined to land her on a higher court. Sex tapes may not bother post-Trump politicians, but judges tend to be stuffy about public disclosures of their private shenanigans, particularly when they shenanigan with a lawyer who is appearing before the judge.

Another judge refers Brody to a private investigator who helps her smoke out the blackmailer. In the tradition of conspiracy thrillers, Brody and the investigator peel back layers and discover that the conspiracy is vast. The novel then moves in the customary direction of conspiracy thrillers, with sinister figures appearing every now and then to threaten Brody and thwart her attempts to unmask the conspirator, sometimes by committing or attempting murder. As usual, conspirators or their sympathizers seem to have infiltrated various corners of government, leaving Brody uncertain whether there is anyone left in the world she can trust.

Apart from the contrived premise, Joseph Finder wields the formula capably. Unfortunately, I found it hard to care much about Brody. She made her bed and decided not to lie on it or to own her mistakes. Her desire to fight back against the blackmail is understandable, but her utter contempt for the law in her approach to saving her career is not. I appreciate that Finder has another character saying to Brody “Do you really think the law is for other people?” A good many people in power think exactly that, and Brody’s willingness to put her career above her principles is less than endearing.

The novel is timely in its focus on Russians who are able to influence American policy. It is pointed in its criticism of the government’s sudden lack of interest in enforcing sanctions against Russian entities. The story imagines that Putin uses strawmen to own a bunch of businesses around the world, which doesn’t take much imagination. Finder’s niche in the thriller market is the world of finance, and his knowledge of financial misconduct adds credibility to the plot, even if the blackmail scheme didn’t strike me as being credible at all.

The story doesn’t create much tension and its resolution is much too easy. But the novel worked for me because, while I didn’t care much about Brody, I cared a great deal about her son, a cancer survivor who rebels against his mother’s rigidity, and her husband, whose is better than his wife at prioritizing things that are truly important. Breaking the rules at least gives Brody a chance to think about whether living a perfect life and pursuing a perfect career track is really as important as she has always believed, although I’m not sure she actually internalizes the lesson. Judgment is a flawed thriller but it has sufficient entertainment value to warrant a lukewarm recommendation.

RECOMMENDED

Sunday
Jan272019

Selected Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy

Published by Dover (Thrift Editions) on December 13, 2017

The stories in this collection are not Tolstoy’s best (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch” are examples of excellent stories that aren’t included here) but reading Tolstoy is never time wasted. The Dover blurb calls some of these stories “hard to find,” so the volume might be of more value to a Tolstoy completest than to a casual reader. The stories appear in chronological order and the later stories reflect a mature talent that had not yet developed in the earlier stories.

The narrator of the “The Raid” is the early version of an embedded journalist. He is a civilian who wants to learn something of war, and to that end seeks out a captain who is on a campaign in the Caucasus. The narrator and the captain discuss theories of bravery and cowardice. The narrator also contemplates the reasons for war and wonders how it can coexist with nature. The story is interesting but, even for 1853, far from groundbreaking in its philosophical explorations.

The narrator of “The Snow-Storm” undertakes a perilous journey by carriage to the next town in the middle of a blizzard, when whiteout conditions make it impossible to stay on the road. The driver seems to vacillate between an acceptance of fate, whatever that might turn out to be, and a desire to avoid death on the frozen steppe. The story is notable for its vivid descriptions and contrasts; less so for the story it tells, which is less observant of human nature than Tolstoy’s later work.

“The Bear-Hunt,” like “The Snow-Storm,” is based on an actual event in Tolstoy’s life. It contains the memorable line (spoken by the narrator’s hunting companion), “He’s eating the master! He’s eating the master!” The moral of the story is, if you insist on shooting a bear, you’d better kill it, because you don’t want to make an enemy of an angry bear.

Zhílan is on his way home from war in the Caucasus when he is captured by Tartars and becomes “A Prisoner in the Caucasus.” The Tartars hold Zhílan and another Russian for ransom. While awaiting a ransom that he knows will never come, Zhílan befriends a Tartar child while plotting his escape. The story is again based on a real incident in Tolstoy’s life and is notable for the fact that his captors (presumably religious since they adhere to Muslim prayer rituals) are generally quite decent to Zhílan until his first escape attempt, although that may be because he only has value to them as a living hostage.

“Two Old Men” decide to take a pilgrimage on foot to Jerusalem before they die, putting their affairs in the hands of their family members. Along the way, as seems fitting for a religious pilgrimage, one man stays behind to feed a starving family, finally returning home when he is nearly out of money. The other completes the journey but returns to find that his family has not managed well in his absence. The friend who failed to go to Jerusalem, on the other hand, is doing very well. Tolstoy’s point, expressly articulated in the last sentence, is that making a show of worshipping God is less important for the soul than expressing your love for humanity by doing good to others. That will always be a timely message. This is my favorite story in the volume.

“The Godson” is a parable about a boy who goes in search of his godfather, is told not to enter a room (which, of course, he enters), and is tasked with lessening the evil in the world as punishment for the evil he causes. The lesson the boy learns is that “evil cannot be removed by evil.” Another timely message, as is the lesson about how to rid the world of evil (hint: making a show of righteous piety won’t do it).

A boy who is berated by his father commits the transgression suggested by the title of “A Forged Coupon.” At the urging of a friend, he cheats a shopkeeper who cheats a peasant who later commits crimes of his own that indirectly cause others to commit crimes, including murder. One point of “The Forged Coupon” is that rich people believe themselves to be above the law and are often treated that way by the government, while the poor people they abuse are punished disproportionately when they are driven to lawless action. Some things never change. The novella’s second part is about guilt, redemption, and the vanity of judgment. Just as the crime in part one had unintended consequences, part two suggests that good acts can cause good fortune that the actor never contemplates. The first half of the novella is riveting, while the second half is a bit preachy.

“After the Dance” starts as an old man’s remembrance of a woman with whom he danced at a ball when he was young. The woman also danced with her father, a colonel, and the young man admired the father’s obvious love for her. But in the morning the young man sees the colonel beating a soldier who tried to desert and cannot reconcile the colonel’s brutality with the tenderness he saw the night before. The observation prompts the young man, and the reader, to wonder whether an inability to understand the colonel’s duality renders the young man unfit for military service.

The shortest story in the volume is my second favorite. “Alyosha the Pot” is a hard-working but dull-witted young man who is so dependable that many people in a merchant’s home come to rely on his labor. When the young cook, Ustinia, befriends him, he is shocked and worried that her friendship might interfere with his work. Yet he is also pleased. “He felt for the first time in his life that he — not his services, but he himself — was necessary to another human being.” They want to wed but the merchant who employs them does not approve of married servants (particularly women, who might get pregnant), and Alyosha’s father, who collects all of Alyosha’s wages, forbids it. The story’s ending is tragic, although Alyosha doesn’t regard it that way, because he is content with the knowledge that he has done no harm in his simple life, and that everything works out for the best. Layers of complexity lurk beneath a simple story that invites readers to ask whether Alyosha, in his simplicity, understands the big picture better than deep thinkers, or whether Alyosha, in his simplicity, does not appreciate how those who exploit him have robbed him of the richness his life could have had.

RECOMMENDED

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