Monday, November 17, 2008

More recently-read books and brief comments

Other books I've recently read.... with hit-and-run commentary.

Stalin's Ghost
by Martin Cruz Smith- very good, if not one of the best of Renko's investigations. Contemporary Moscow, new Russian elections, post-Chernobyl citizens, and detailed references to the war in Chechnya.

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
by Robert Harris- I enjoyed this, but kept waiting for another shoe to drop. There were no staggering revelations for me, and we learn that much of Cicero's life was mundane, though that in itself is somewhat staggering to realize. It is a rich book, nonetheless, and I am richer for having read it. Some of the parallels between Roman politics and today's world are disturbing.

The Ghost
by Robert Harris- A fine read, with a suitably cynical view of modern politics. A great draw for those who love conspiracies, real or imagined.

Chinaman's Chance
by Ross Thomas- A brilliant and bitingly satirical novel that is uproariously funny, while also treating some deadly serious issues from our not-so-distant historical past. Tremendous balance and taste are complemented by the best characters one could hope for (including my favorite con men).

New England White
by Stephen L. Carter- His second novel, after the outstanding book, The Emperor of Ocean Park, gives us another terrific thriller with a convoluted, engaging, generation-spanning plot. We also enjoy some serious suspense, and a lot of racial and political context. Don't put it down (you'll soon be unable to)!

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

For the love of language (and politics), plus comments on a few of the latest books I've read

I find myself compelled to point out that Sarah Palin is suffering from "Aleutians of grandeur."


I just finished a few books sent to me by my brother, lent by friends, and some that I even purchased (that should make the authors happy, though if they only knew how many books I have, they might forgive my current quasi-moratorium on buying more). These recently-read books include Hitler's Peace by Philip Kerr, which was not as engaging as his most engaging books, and at times seemed awkward or forced, but was compelling, nonetheless, and ultimately both illuminating and intriguing. OK, that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but remember that this is a favorite author of mine who reaches the highest standards in most of his books, if not quite in every case. However, I encourage you to read Hitler's Peace, both for the excitement and for the window on a fascinating time in history.

Prior to that, a selection of what I read includes Vicious Circle by Robert Littell, The Mayor of Lexington Avenue by James Shehan, much of Collapse by Jared Diamond (still reading it), and the single volume containing the novels Fatherland and Enigma by Robert Harris.

Here are a few additional recent reads: Water Touching Stone by Eliot Pattison (excellent), Spook Country by William Gibson (judged by the highest standards, very good), and The Painter of Battles: A Novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte (see below).

Collapse is a fascinating book that can be read in bits and pieces, or straight through. I'm still filling in the parts I skipped over, aided in my journey by never using a bookmark and continually starting up in random places (a Dadaist approach, perhaps, but don't you feel the Dadaists need a little more attention now and then?). Collapse offers a lot of hope while also documenting many monumental failures of societies throughout history; it comes from the author of the highly touted Guns, Germs and Steel, also touted (and toted) by my high school age son. I haven't read Guns, Germs ... yet.

The other books I listed are all very good or better, though The Mayor of Lexington Avenue is excellent for 95% of the book, and just OK for the other 5% (don't hold me to the numbers, these are impressionistic statistics, if there are such a thing). Still, The Mayor of... is quite an amazing first novel, with outstanding characters, plot and setting that stretch over two generations, from the poor to the rich and powerful, and from New York to a Florida backwater. I think that if the author had grappled with one less issue or subplot, the book would have remained uniformly outstanding. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended.

Although I've read all of Littell's other books except one, I had made a conscious decision not to read Vicious Circle. I felt the same way when The Little Drummer Girl by le Carre' came out- at the time that I just couldn't handle the subject matter (the Middle East conflict) as "entertainment," though, of course, the book is far deeper than that comment implies. I know this because, after about ten years, I broke down and read John le Carre's take on a part of the Middle East conflict, and was glad I did, and, after my brother sent me Vicious Circle I broke down again and read it as well.

Littell writes so well that I found myself laughing out loud in the middle of very tense scenes. As always, his wonderful language and characters are brilliantly crafted. Still, Israeli and Palestinian people and their many issues are not an easy thing to read about, especially when they are kidnapping, murdering, torturing and negotiating for peace (simultaneously, if not all by the same individuals). I felt that Littell was extremely balanced in his treatment of all sides, and the book is gripping from start to end. Unfortunately, I cried a lot more than I laughed, but that comes with the territory in this case.

The novels by Robert Harris left me a bit flat, Enigma more so than Fatherland. I have to say that the premise of Fatherland is very clever and brilliantly executed, and was used to build up a remarkable, alternative universe, though one where the truth will out. The premise is that Germany won WW2 and, among many other consequences, no GI's liberated any concentration camps. The storyline itself isn't quite as strong as other aspects of the book, though it serves as a good thriller with chilling revelations. Enigma perhaps simply wasn't the book I was expecting- I kept looking for that book on each page and coming up empty. It is definitely worth reading, however, and is another WW2 thriller, with an associated murder mystery.

The Painter of Battles by Perez-Reverte is an unusual book. It is by far the shortest book by the author, as far as I know, but it took me an unusually long time to read. There are a lot of pithy sentences and analyses of paintings and warfare, from ancient to modern. Not that this is a textbook by any means; it is a psychological thriller, and the tension can reach high levels, but it's also a no-holds-barred examination of modern morality, warfare and societies. The language demands an attention to detail that I could not always provide (say at the end of a long day) and I wasn't always alert enough to grasp the point, though I rarely have this problem with books (or with the books I choose to read, in any event). I'm not sure I'm erudite enough to grasp all of this novel, either. My knowledge of art history is fairly spotty- I've seen a lot but haven't studied it, so I tend to forget the details. Nevertheless, the stories within the novel are well worth reading since they are based on real events, more or less, events that were highly significant to the participants and some of their observers, but were probably given little thought by most other people. As with quantum physics, we see here that the observer changes the "experiment" or experience, and here the consequences can be tragic. I'd label this short novel a "must read"!

That's it for my capsule summaries and other comments of the day.

© 2008 James K. Bashkin

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Interview with Author Shobhan Bantwal

Today I have the pleasure of publishing an interview with Shobhan Bantwal, author of The Forbidden Daughter and The Dowry Bride. Readers will not be surprised to find me fascinated by a culturally-aware thriller that describes unfamiliar customs- thankfully unfamiliar in this case (see Qiu Xiaolong for related examples from China). After some background material on Shobhan and her latest novel, I'll dive into the interview, and then close with an excerpt from The Forbidden Daughter.

Summary of The Forbidden Daughter

When a young widow refuses to comply with her in-laws' dictate to abort her unborn child, will her rebellion turn out to be the greatest mistake of her life, or a blessing in disguise? This is the story of one mother’s valiant fight to protect her daughters in a society that often frowns on female children, and the only man who will help her in her battle when the stakes become impossibly high. The Forbidden Daughter is woven around the hot-button social issue of vanishing girl children in contemporary India, where gender-based abortions and female infanticide continue to be practiced in some areas despite laws to ban the practices.

About Shobhan Bantwal –Shobhan Bantwal is the author of The Dowry Bride and The Forbidden Daughter. Both novels are set in India and released by Kensington Publishing Corp. Shobhan’s short story titled Where the Lotus Grows is scheduled for publication in an anthology in spring 2009 and the proceeds will be donated by the publisher, Freya’s Bower, to a battered women’s shelter.

As a freelance writer, Shobhan frequently writes columns for India Abroad. Since 2002, Shobhan’s articles and short stories have also appeared in a variety of other publications including The Writer magazine, Little India, U.S. 1, Desi Journal, India Currents, Overseas Indian, New Woman India, Kanara Saraswat and Sulekha. Her short stories have won honors and awards in fiction contests sponsored by Writer’s Digest, New York Stories and New Woman magazines.

For more information about Shobhan Bantwal’s virtual tour, visit:

The Forbidden Daughter can be ordered at:

You can visit Shobhan Bantwal at her website –

Nearly Nothing but Novels: the Interview with Shobhan Bantwal

NearlyNothingbutNovels: How do you try to manage the balance between political statement and artistic vision in your writing?

Shobhan Bantwal: When I first took up creative writing, I had no idea that I would develop an interest in political-social issues and use them as a platform for my stories. I was contemplating various themes, and dowry abuse in India seemed like an interesting topic, with just enough controversy and substance to form the crux of a dramatic tale with romantic elements.

However, as I started to do some preliminary research into the deeply-entrenched dowry system and the use and abuse of it in Indian society, I was both shocked enough and curious enough to decide to make it my main theme.

To answer your question, I find myself teetering on a high-wire when I make my political statements the central motifs of my books and at the same time attempt to entertain my readers with good, page-turning stories. As long as I remain focused on the fact that I write “fiction” and my writing is not a scholarly treatise on the social-political issues, I am able to factor them into my stories, and to my satisfaction.

NNBN: Do your female protagonists represent an idealized vision of women who may develop in India, given time and circumstances, or are they characters who are truly part of today’s Indian society in significant numbers?

SB: My female protagonists are my vision of the ideal Indian woman—strong yet flexible, shy yet bold when necessary, kind yet selfish enough to protect what is hers, astute yet possessing an innocent and naïve quality that makes readers find her likeable enough to root for her.

However, in present-day India’s environment of higher education and emancipation, there are such women in abundance. They are the trailblazers ones who are brave enough to break away from meaningless traditions and forge a new path for other women to follow.

One such example is a young woman named Nisha Sharma, who in 2003 became so disgruntled by her future in-laws’ unreasonable demands of dowry from her parents that she rebelled against tradition and had the groom and his family arrested in the marriage hall, in the presence of the wedding guests. She became an instant hero, not only in India, but in many parts of the world where women are allowed little freedom to speak their minds. There are plenty of Nisha Sharmas in India today.

NNBN: What kind of real freedom of expression does Indian society provide to artists, especially women?

SB: Despite being very 21st Century in technology, fashion, and culture (to some degree) freedom of expression to artists is still rather restricted. Although those restrictions are imposed on both sexes, in the male-dominated atmosphere of Indian society, it is the women who face more harsh criticism of artistic expression than men. A woman painter who portrays nudism is likely to face censure from the moral police more than a man. A woman writer who features controversy or supposedly “puts ultra-modern ideas” in women’s minds is sure to provoke conservative folks.

A number of instances, where certain movies and books have been banned in India, and a beauty pageant that was disrupted by picketers because it debased Indian women are examples of how there is no true freedom of expression in certain arenas.

Again, there are a few women who are rebellious enough to break the mold and start a new trend in every form of artistic expression.

NNBN: How serious is the Indian central government about reforms that challenge traditional values in favor of human rights?

SB: The Indian government is very serious about protecting human rights. For years, legislation to ban dowry, gender-selective abortion, and discrimination against females in the workplace has been enacted progressively by the government. And yet, the number of cases that are tried is very few, and the ones where justice is served are even fewer. One of the reasons for this is a weak judicial system bogged down by bureaucratic rules. The other reason is raging corruption in the law enforcement community, where the police and other departments are willing to look the other way even in cases of blatant abuse.

NNBN: What are the personal repercussions of your powerful stance in favor of women’s rights?

SB: Being an Indian-American writer whose books are published in North America only, not too many copies of them have reached India yet. My readers are primarily non-South Asian, which means not many censorious folks have had a chance to read my books. To that end, personal repercussions have been minimal (to date). Nonetheless, as more of my books reach readers outside the U.S. and Canada, the potential for personal attacks is likely to increase.

Having said that, I have to admit that a handful of Indian-Americans have sent me some scathing comments. They are critical of my portrayal of the darker elements of Indian culture and supposedly distorting the magnitude of certain practices.

NNBN: How do you place the issue of women’s rights in terms of the other injustices and tragedies that beset the various cultural and religious groups in India, both within themselves and against each other?

SB: In most cultures, injustices and the resulting tragedies are often interrelated. Women’s rights violations are a direct result of conservative beliefs that stem from lack of knowledge and education, which comes from poverty and lack of resources, which in turn hinges on overpopulation.

To this day, many Indians believe the woman is at fault if she produces female children, when science clearly states otherwise. In male-dominated societies like India, girls are looked upon as a liability whereas boys are assets, future bread-winners, leaders and caretakers of the elderly. However, with more education and forward thinking, the tide is slowly turning, leaving hope for women to rise to the level of males.

The more serious issue in the 21st Century appears to be not so much social evils as religion, which has taken on a new and intimidating stance. Whereas Indian society in the past was secular and tolerant of all religions, today the Hindus and Muslims are warring with each other more frequently. This could lead to unforeseen and more virulent socio-political problems, especially for children and families of mixed marriages.

NNBN: Given an understandable resistance to outside influence by any cultural group or country, what would you have the international community do, if anything, to improve women’s rights and combat social injustice in India?

SB: The U.N. and human rights organizations around the world are capable of penetrating the walls of resistance in conservative cultures to some extent. If enough publicity is given to the types of topics I write about, these organizations could do more research into the subjects and offer assistance to the victims. These worldwide organizations have the size, the budget, and the clout to delve past the barriers erected by cultural and religious groups in any part of the world.

One of the reasons I write about socio-political topics is to bring awareness to them amongst people who have no knowledge of them. My readers often thank me for making them aware of something they had never heard of.

NNBN: What are the most obvious effects on Indian society brought about by current improvements in the standard of living, at least for some?

SB: With the IT industry’s boom since the Y2K revolution started in the late 1990s, India’s middle class has seen a phenomenal growth in its standard of living. But the secondary and more promising effect is the proliferation of education. In an effort to fill the multitude of high-tech jobs in a growing global market, both men and women have enrolled in technology courses and acquired advanced degrees. As a result, more young women are now in high-income jobs similar to those once held by men. This type of economic independence has also spawned social and political independence for women.

NNBN: At the same time that Indians increasingly embrace and benefit financially from what we might inaccurately call “Western” technology, including science and engineering, is there any evidence of a shift towards Western values? Or, perhaps, is this technology viewed as an indigenous Indian development, carrying with it no foreign connotation or influence?

SB: With the influence of Western technology there has been a gradual shift towards Western culture. Pubs or bars have mushroomed in large cities in India, allowing the younger generation to socialize in places where once there was no place other than home to go to after work. Bollywood movies now have more Western themes with the characters wearing Western clothes and vacationing in Europe and the U.S. They eat and drink non-Indian foods and drinks, they dance in swank clubs, drive imported automobiles, and the Hindi dialogue is generously sprinkled with English words, especially Americanisms.

However, the picture is not all positive. Drugs, alcohol, and excessive spending on luxuries are some of the problems that are being experienced in India in recent years.

Thank you for hosting me on your popular blog. Additional information about my writing, recipes, photos, and events is available on my website:

NNBN- and thanks to Shobhan for being kind enough to answer my questions! Now from her latest novel:

Prologue for The Forbidden Daughter

Oh, Lord, I beg of you.
I fall at your feet time and again.
In my next incarnation, don't give me a daughter;
Give me hell instead . . .

Folk Song from the State of Uttar Pradesh, India


“Your child will come at the harvest full moon,” the old man said.

Jolted out of her dark, melancholic thoughts, Isha Tilak looked up, and stared in astonishment at the man who had uttered the startling words. He was obviously addressing her, because there was no one else in the immediate vicinity.

His strange remark captured her attention, thrusting aside her private musings.

“It is called Kojagari Purnima. It is the night when Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance, descends from her heavenly abode to bless her devotees,” he added, stroking his luxuriant salt-and-pepper beard that more than compensated for the total absence of hair on his large, misshapen head.

He was supposedly a sadhu—a sage or holy man. He was certainly dressed for the part in his faded saffron robe—typical garb for Hindu holy men. Perhaps because she continued to wear a baffled look, he smiled. The simple motion transformed and softened his austere face, creating deeper furrows in his gaunt cheeks. “Yours will be a female child who will bring light and abundance to the people around her.”

She shook herself out of her stunned silence. It took her a moment to comprehend his words. Then natural curiosity took over, prompting her to goad him, test him. “How do you know my child will be a girl?”

He ignored her question. Instead he said, “Your daughter comes as a gift from Lakshmi, so she will enjoy prosperity and many comforts in her life, and, being generous, she will share them with others.”

“But my in-laws think she’s a curse,” Isha informed him, the bitterness in her voice hard to conceal and the despondency in her tear-swollen eyes a testimony to her despair. “In fact, they have forbidden me to have this child.”

“I know,” he said, with a thoughtful nod. “I am also aware that there is something which some evil doctors use to eliminate female children before they are born. It is one of the many scourges of kaliyug. Modern society.”

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Coming October 16: An Interview with Author Shobhan Bantwal

As part of Shobhan Bantwal's BlogTour to support her latest novel, I will be interviewing and hosting Ms. Bantwal on October 16. Please feel free to send in questions of your own, ahead of time, so the author can respond.

Ms Bantwal's latest novel is The Forbidden Daughter, and, like her first novel, The Dowry Bride, this story addresses the rights and roles of women in India, in a dramatic setting. From the book jacket:

When a young widow refuses to comply with her in-laws' dictate to abort her unborn child, will her rebellion turn out to be the greatest mistake of her life, or a blessing in disguise? This is the story of one mother's valiant fight to protect her daughters in a society that often frowns on female children, and the only man who will help her in her battle when the stakes become impossibly high.
If you are like me, The Forbidden Daughter will provide you with a thrilling and excellent read and an entirely new take reproductive freedom, not to mention the role of physicians in society. I hope you will join us!

James K. Bashkin

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Novels I'm reading, blogs I'm writing

Note: Edited 3/12/09

I have started a few more websites and blogs, which is one reason I have fallen so far behind in my reviews. The fiction related sites are:

Then, there are the environmental sites that I've been spending a lot of time on: as chemrat1 (This site is great but has overwhelmed me with requests and email)

A site on playing guitar for kids to adults (music, videos, players, lessons. gear):

See also my latest websites, Women Guitar Players and Pentax Digital Photography

A couple of general purpose sites that have writing and photography:

Articles on
Photos on
Please note that is now defunct, so that blog is gone, and I don't use twitter any more as chemrat (username chemrat)

This is almost the full extent of my e-publishing under my own name, bashkin001 and chemrat. I welcome you feedback on any and all of these sites, and you'll see from the squidoo sites that I am continuing to read a lot of fiction. I have one review partially written and am currently reading The Delectable Mountains by the delightful Michael Malone.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bloggers Unite for Human Rights

Amnesty International and BlogCatalog are promoting today, May 15, 2008, as a day for bloggers to speak out on human rights.

I just wrote what I felt, inspired in part by Daniel Schorr's call to action on Myanmar, heard on May 14, 2008 on National Public Radio (NPR), and also inspired by the very mission of Amnesty International. The post can be found on my other blog, Chemistry for a sustainable world, here.

A book review is in progress!

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Interview with Popular Author Qiu Xiaolong- Part 3

What a long over-due post... Of course, I had to read A Case of Two Cities and Red Mandarin Dress immediately, so that derailed my timing in the most enjoyable way, but, as will be clear to some, writing about the environment has occupied my spare time of late. Because of the delay in writing this down, I have had to paraphrase much more than I would have liked. Hence, the scarcity of quotation marks. The link for part 2 of this interview is given above (long overdue ...), and part 1 of the interview with Qiu Xiaolong is found here.

So, on to the wonderful Mr. Qiu Xiaolong and the end of our discussion. I asked him about how Russian cultural and literary influence had fared through the Cultural Revolution, and he related that this, too, had ultimately been rejected: the earlier importance of Tolstoy, Pushkin and Dostoevsky was wiped away by Mao's insistence on what I would characterize as nothing but the most trivial written language.

On the subject of language, we then addressed translation: the translation of Qiu's novels from English into his native Chinese. This turns out to have been a nightmare. When starting out, Qiu was shocked and powerless over what the official Chinese translators did to his work. First, the books were not allowed to take place in Shanghai, where they are set, "because such crimes could never take place in a real Chinese city." Apparently China has no murders, officially. It is a wonder that they need any police. So, the books are set in a fictional, anonymous city, H_, which is absurd for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that the details of Shanghai itself make the city another character in the novels.

The title of the second Inspector Chen novel, A Loyal Character Dancer, was also unacceptable to Chinese officials. Qiu explained their dilemma without irony: a loyal character dancer existed only during the Cultural Revolution. This combination of words and concept didn't exist before the period of upheaval, and didn't exist afterwards! How can words just disappear?* They can because the new National slogan is "Look forward to the future", which apparently sounds almost identical to "Look forward to the money." Nobody wants to think back to the Cultural Revolution, to dwell in the past. In addition to appearing and disappearing during the Cultural Revolution, loyal character dancers were the ONLY dancers allowed at that time, so the connotations of the language are disturbing, but they also communicate the truth, a commodity that lost its value long ago in China. Now, of course, Mr. Qiu is fully-established as an internationally successful, professional writer and in great demand. He has had to leave his teaching post, even though he loves teaching, because the time and travel demands of his writing career are simply too great. Now, Qiu is in a position to say "No" in no uncertain terms: his books will be translated, unaltered, into Chinese, or they will not be published in China at all.

I mentioned that one of my scientific collaborators gave an invited lecture in Beijing last fall, and I was appalled to see the brochure advertising a great site-seeing tour for all cheerful tourists to visit Tiananmen Square. I associate the Square with army tanks, student protesters and atrocities committed by the Chinese soldiers against their nation's children. Mr. Qiu pointed out my naiveté kindly but firmly, making it clear that my CNN-driven impression of the Square carried little of the even more-exceptionally serious resonance that native Chinese would feel: it is a place of much more history and significance than my memory had conjured up. Tiananmen Square is the location where Mao first announced the Cultural Revolution, accompanied by his Red Guard. It is also the location of Mao's memorial hall with its crystal coffin, and far more. It still wouldn't be my choice of a tourist destination.

As part of his general address to the group at Barnes and Noble, Qiu told the story of his father's humiliation and persecution under the Cultural Revolution, and how Qiu himself, as a young boy, had to write the confessions for his hospitalized, frail parent. This was his introduction to writing. I chose not to ask him any further about it. I must say that Qiu's composure, with a lack of irony or bitterness, while discussing these experiences was remarkable. I was in tears, listening.

After reading comments on the web this weekend by people who are determined to blame someone or something for problems that have no clear cause, it is hard to reconcile our attitudes of entitlement in the USA with the joy for life and ability to survive and flourish exhibited by Qiu under the most trying circumstances. The good news is that we have the freedom to feel that selfish entitlement, if we choose, and hire a lawyer to act accordingly, with no repercussions from a totalitarian State.

I think a cautionary note is in order, however. Anyone who has watched the erosion of civil liberties in the United States might wonder just how close to totalitarianism the current (2008) regime has brought us. It is hard to know much about the horrors of our torture program in the US or the real story of who is in Guantanamo Bay's Prison and why they are there, but the recent novel The Mission Song by John Le Carre', is a brilliant and chilling glimpse of how the totalitarian State is alive and well for many who live on the margins of citizenship in Britain. Don't forget what this could signify for the US, especially given the "special relationship" that we enjoy with Great Britain.

We also touched on the subject of freedom in China when discussing crime fiction. Apparently there is now a type of crime fiction springing up in China, along the lines of the Western noir genre, that serves a useful, political and anti-corruption role. However, in these Chinese stories, there is never any mystery, because the crimes are always solved by a Communist Party cadre who uncovers the problem without the need for investigation. In China, all crime is political. I would call this The Case of the Ghost in the Party Machine.

I haven't yet given myself the pleasure of reading Cara Black's interview of Qiu, but you may find pertinent information about Qiu's childhood and later life there. Qiu spoke of Cara Black's hospitality, which I too have enjoyed, if only by email, discussing her novels and crime fiction in general. Ms. Black has written some of my favorite detective fiction, all set in Paris.

In addition to adjusting to a new schedule of publication deadlines and countless public appearances, it was good to hear that Qiu still has some time for poetry. I was able to pick up a few signed copies of his original verse and translations of Chinese poetry, and I look forward to reading them. I can say for now that Red Mandarin Dress is an outstanding novel, and somewhat of a departure in style. It is a tighter, more compact tale than we have seen before from Qiu, in part because Detective Yu is able to keep the investigation charging hard even while Inspector Chen Cao is struggling with his love of literature, academics and poetry and the resulting conflict with his investigative responsibility. A full review of the book will appear on this site.

I am grateful to Mr. Qiu Xiaolong for his kindness and time, for permission to interview him and to take and publish photographs of him and his work, and for his wonderful work.

*If you want more examples of how politics affect language, I strongly recommend Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury. It is an uproariously hilarious book, but not funny at all on some levels.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

crime fiction on Squidoo

Crime fiction is reviewed and discussed on my new Squidoo lens, with polls and opportunities for reader input. Music is recommended to accompany reading books by various crime authors (typically the music listened to by their protagonists). Links to this and other blogs are provided. Author interviews have started to appear. There is also a new Squidoo group I just started called What's A Little Murder Among Friends?, designed for people to add their own crime fiction lenses. Join in! Membership in is free, and can be used for fun, profit or charity.

For those who don't know, Squidoo lenses are a web device for focusing attention on any subject that interests you. Squidoo groups are simply groups of lenses: people can join your group or you can add other people's lenses that interest you. You can add RSS feeds from blogs, books from, and music from iTunes. Lenses featured on What's a Little Murder... include author- and genre-specific sites built up by dedicated fans.

For those who don't care about this kind of information for bloggers, don't worry, there won't be much. If I knew more, I might have avoided posting the same story to this blog twice (see below). Undoubtedly, Angels fear to tread in the bloggosphere.

read more | digg story

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crime fiction on Squidoo Redux

Crime fiction is reviewed and discussed on this new lens, with polls and comment boxes for reader input. Music is recommended to accompany reading the work specific authors (typically the music that their characters listen to). Links to book blogs are provided. Author interviews have started to appear on the blogs and will make it to the lens. There is also a new Squidoo group, What's a Little Murder Among Friends, for people to add their own crime fiction Squidoo lenses and comments. Join in!

read more | digg story

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Earth Hour, March 29, 8-9 pm local time

I know I'm way behind- I have to finish writing up the interview with Qiu Xiaolong, review Red Mandarin Dress and a bunch more terrific books (by Batya Gur, Walter Mosley, Pat Barker, and John Le Carre') that I read recently. However, today I'm just going to suggest you take a look at information about the environmental event, Earth Hour 2008, which takes place in your home or office, March 29 from 8-9 pm, your local time. Thanks! I'll be back with more as soon as I can.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Book Review: A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong

A slightly different version of this review was published first at Blogcritics magazine, Book Review: A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong:
"Inspector Chen investigates from Shanghai to Los Angeles to St. Louis to bring murderous businessmen to justice."

While writing up my notes from the discussion and interview with Qiu Xiaolong, I had the pleasure of reading both the fourth Inspector Chen novel, A Case of Two Cities and the fifth novel, Red Mandarin Dress. A Case of Two Cities is a politically-and socially-relevant mystery that pits Inspector Chen against corrupt, high-ranking Communist Party members who are increasingly involved in shady business deals associated with the increasing economic development in China.

I've written elsewhere (at Blogcritics Magazine and on my environmental blog) about the environmental problems (and some good news) associated with China's rapid industrial expansion. The realities of China's New Economics are brought to life by author Qiu in many ways. For example, we meet loyal state workers who live on a fixed pension and can barely survive in the face of inflation, and we learn of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes in preparation for new skyscrapers and country clubs. However, there are far more nefarious deeds for Inspector Chen to contend with: the Inspector must handle the murder of an old friend, threats against his elderly mother and attempts on his own life, all while dealing with intense political danger, in the course of trying to bring rogue officials and businessmen to justice.

The language in A Case of Two Cities is a pleasure, with occasional quotes from classical Chinese poetry and T. S. Eliot, and phrases that echo Eliot's lines sprinkled throughout to capture the mood. Poetry is part of Chen's personal language in the same manner that a soundtrack or inner dialog for contemporary U.S. detectives might be based on music, including Jazz, Rock & Roll, Soul or Hip-Hop. Qiu's language works so well because he is a poet and a translator of poetry, so he can call upon classical Chinese or post-modern poetic imagery to fit a mood as easily as I might conjure up a Bob Dylan lyric.

The heart of the case is a series of lucrative land deals that could only have been made with insider knowledge of city planning, such as where new subway lines will be constructed and where land will become valuable overnight. The ringleader in the case, Xing, has already fled to the U.S., probably tipped off by colluding officials before an arrest could be made. Xing is now living in Los Angeles, in mansion next door to the son of a Chinese Politburo member. Xing has also applied for political asylum, claiming to be persecuted for political reasons. Outwardly, the Chinese authorities are angry about this request for asylum, but many of these same authorities the partners who became rich alongside Xing.

It turns out that much of the empire Xing built was helped along by new luxury clubs that cater to the baser desires of Shanghai businessmen, and, of course, their new interest in golf. Many deals are made because of favors provided in private rooms, along with hard cash in a red envelope, the traditional bribe for Communist Party officials.

Chen tries to reject cynicism, but this is a battle he loses a little more with each book in the series of novels. He works hard to follow orders, even though they may intend for him to create more of a spectacle than a real investigation. Can Chen achieve more than a hollow victory? Will he be able to keep his promises to himself and his dead Chinese friend while pursuing the big fish?

In the middle of a tense Shanghai investigation, Police Inspector Chen is suddenly sent out of the country to lead a literary delegation to the U.S. This role is not completely incongruous because Chen is a published poet, noted translator of T. S. Eliot and member of the Chinese Writers' Association as well as a police inspector; he had hoped to pursue an academic career before the government diverted his career to the police force. However, the timing is highly suspicious and the reason why he received this assignment is not clear: is it to remove him from the scene in Shanghai or to bring him close to the fugitive Xing? For that matter, what exactly is the purpose of the literary delegation? It starts out innocently enough, but after a week, nearly everyone involved seems to have a hidden agenda and several are keeping an eye on Chen. As leader of the group, Chen is in the uncomfortable position of having to lead daily political study sessions.

With Chen in America, his associate Detective Yu must carry on the investigation in Shanghai. Yu is essentially alone except for his wife and father, a retired policeman known as Old Hunter. These three try to keep Chen's elderly mother safe while tracking down Xing's hidden half-brother, Ming, who may still be in China and, because of the power of Chinese filial piety, could help unravel the case. Ming was the intermediary who obtained insider information from corrupt Director Jiang of the Shanghai City Land Development Office.

His part of the investigation shifted to the U.S., Inspector Chen wonders if he'll have a chance to rekindle his relationship with his American friend Catherine Rohn, the U.S. Marshal he met in A Loyal Character Dancer. Chen wonders about other questions, also: how will his estranged High-Society girlfriend, ensconced in the politics of Beijing, help or hurt his chances for survival? Are Politburo members trying to derail Chen's work when he discovers too much, are they trying to put him in harm's way, or are there even more layers of intrigue to sift through? With the battle raging on so many fronts, Chen must plan his attack like a master of the Chinese chess game, Wei Qi (better known in the U.S. by its Japanese name, go).

The interaction of the Chinese literary delegation with American writers and academics reveals misunderstandings of cuisine and culture, bitter and amusing ironies, and ignorance of history: expatriate Chinese are producing “deep sea fish oil” coveted in China for its "Made in the U.S.A." label; proud Chinese delegates can find no copies of their books in the university library, let alone the bookstore. Key quotes include:

  • Nonsmoking area… Is this a free country?
  • I talked to an American student today...They believe that Hong Kong belongs to Britain (and) know nothing of the Opium War. There is nothing in their textbooks.
  • Pearl told me that Pizza Hut is a cheap fast-food restaurant here. In Beijing, it is a high-end place.
  • What an irony. We never had fortune cookies in China.
Given the unintended affronts, a relatively successful academic conference takes place in Los Angeles, along with a secret investigation by Chen, and the literary delegation then moves on to St. Louis in search of Mark Twain, known as Master Ma. Twain is a particular favorite among some Chinese writers because his satire, Running for Governor, is "a lampoon against hypocritical American Democracy." For his own part, Chen is happy to visit St. Louis to hunt for artifacts of T. S. Eliot' s life and reunite with Catherine Rohn, who lives in the St. Louis suburb, University City.

Even though Chen is able to work with Catherine, who is able to masquerade as a translator in St. Louis because of her knowledge of Chinese, their relationship has been strained by time and distance; can it be salvaged? Eventually, Chen finds a quiet moment to sort through many of his feelings in a restaurant bar located close to Catherine's house (and close my own). Chen struggles to shrug off the hesitancy that T. S. Eliot described so well,* to be decisive with Catherine, and to move forward in his investigation. To survive, he must navigate the immense and contradictory forces that shape life and death in contemporary Shanghai. If you enjoy great fiction or compelling and complex mysteries, you'll want to join him.

*From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
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Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Conversation with Author Qiu Xiaolong, Part 2

IMGP0768 bb Qiu Xiaolong
Above, in this photograph I was able to take (creative commons license 3.0, James K. Bashkin), we see copies of Qiu Xiaolong's latest book, the fifth Inspector Chen novel, Red Mandarin Dress. Red Mandarin Dress was published by St. Martin's, to which Qiu moved from Soho Press prior to publication of the fourth Inspector Chen novel, A Case of Two Cities. The final Inspector Chen offering by Soho is When Red is Black, a particularly personal story, Qiu explained, because China now embraces capitalism though, before, The Party persecuted all businessmen, even small business owners like his father. Throughout the discussion and question session that Barnes & Noble hosted, Qiu was exceedingly patient, very kind, and quite thorough in his comments.

When I arrived for Qiu's commentary and Q&A session, he was discussing Western literature and the Cultural Revolution. Qiu said, "From 1966 to 1976, there was no translation of Western books and all existing books were destroyed. During that time, the only book we were allowed to have was Mao's Little Red Book. People would hide other books inside the cover of Mao's book, even though it was dangerous. I did this, and I was even caught by one of my teachers, but he said nothing. I think he actually approved... Even after 1976, very few Western books were translated... Modernism was taboo."

Qiu went on to discuss modernism and how the idea of "impersonal art (about) personal feelings" conflicted with Mao's beliefs. He also mentioned the complications of mixing art and politics for modernists even in the West, bringing up the treatment of Ezra Pound, who would have been considered counter-revolutionary in China and was also persecuted in the West. Qiu noted that "Though many of the early revolutionaries in China were (intellectuals, and some studied abroad), Mao was not a college student, though he worked in a college library in Beijing." (Mao had succeeded as) "an autodidact, and he must have felt that, since he rose so high" (in Chinese government, formal education was unnecessary and wasteful.)

Since Qiu first came to prominence in the literary world through his translation of T. S. Eliot into Chinese, I mentioned that Eliot's poem The Wasteland was very controversial and anti-establishment in its day, and I asked why a poem so unpalatable to Western Establishment Conservatives should be unpopular with Chinese authorities. Qiu responded very kindly to this question, and spoke at length; some of his remarks are paraphrased (noted by parentheses, as above).

Qiu said, "In the 1940's, Mao said that literature should exist to serve politics.... (part of what) he meant was that literature should be (easy for) farmers (to understand)... Even Dickens was banned during the Cultural Revolution (though he had been a popular author beforehand because he showed the corruption of the West.)"

Qiu explained further, "During the Cultural Revolution, Eight movies and model operas were performed. Only eight (over and over again). (These eight stories had) perfect characters, so devoted to The Party and the Government that they had no time for their families, or for love, or even to make love. The characters were one-dimensional. Dickens' complexity opposed these ideas." Clearly, The Wasteland didn't stand a chance.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Conversation With Qiu Xiaolong, Part 1

Qiu Xiaolong wrote one of the great novels of the past several years, Death of Red Heroine, which is an absolute masterpiece. This was the first Inspector Chen novel, and it introduced us to the Chinese police inspector with a penchant for poetry and Western fiction, including detective fiction, as well considerable skill at solving complex crimes. In fact, the author himself is an accomplished poet and translator of poetry, and his complete grasp of the most complex English, whether from T. S. Eliot or any other source, gives him a much heralded skill as a translator. Do not, however, worry that Qiu Xiaolong's novels are pedantic- their language is superlative without in any way being self-conscious, and they are filled with suspense, intrigue, puzzling clues and great mysteries.

Qiu used to teach Chinese literature at Washington University in St. Louis, but, at least for the moment, teaching has yielded to the busy travel schedule of a successful author. Sandwiched between Chinese New Year in London and a working visit to Hong Kong as a writer in residence, the author stopped by my local Barnes & Noble in St. Louis County, Missouri (at Ladue Crossing) for a book signing and discussion. There, I had a chance to catch up with him and listen to his presentation. I took the opportunity to pick up signed copies of his latest books, including Red Mandarin Dress: An Inspector Chen Novel, and have a number of questions answered.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Ultimate Good Luck by Richard Ford- A review

The Ultimate Good Luck (TUGL) was not an easy book for me to read, but that isn't due to any flaw in the story, it is a testament to how accurately the entire novel captures the moods and viewpoint of its antihero, Harry Quinn. Quinn is veteran of the Vietnam War, a drifter, a laborer, a drinker and a bit of a druggie, the kind of person who used to be somebody's son, who went to school down the street, and who went to fight for his country only to find himself fighting ghosts and children in the jungle and the darkness. He wasn't destroyed by the war, completely, but he is no longer whole.

Quinn has answered a cry for help from Rae, his estranged companion, because Rae's brother, Sonny, is trapped in a Mexican jail on drug charges. Making matters worse, the drug charges are completely legitimate: Sonny was caught trafficking in cocaine, bringing it north from Columbia to the US via Mexico, a practice known as muling. The problem now is to get Sonny out of jail, and Quinn has set the wheels in motion to solve everything, as long as the good luck holds. Quinn has hired a well-connected lawyer, Bernhardt, and it seems that both the plan and the luck are on track. However, this is Mexico, Oaxaca to be precise, where the zócalo, or town square, is full of impoverished Zapotec Indians and bewildered tourists, and a constant stream of Indians circulates in a netherworld between the mountains and the valley below, where the capitol city lies. This is Mexico, and Mexico has bigger problems to worry herself over than a few US citizens, especially a small-time crook...

...and so it goes that the plans of all visitors, whether wide-eyed tourists from the Midwest or dopers from nowhere in particular, must bow to greater forces as the army, police, guerrillas, Zapotec and other groups feint, withdraw, and attack in a constant struggle for survival, civil rights, and any rights at all. Just because the struggle seems below the surface much of the time, one can't assume it has ceased- relax your guard, or just walk out of your hotel for lunch, and you may end up blown across a street by a bomb or taken away forever by soldiers, desaparecido.

What is a guerrilla? After a fatal gunfight and major cocaine bust at the airport, the lawyer Bernhardt offers an operational definition,

In Mexico, to obey the law is always to avoid it. If the police are shot, then guerrillas are accused... Many people don't know they're guerrillas before the police say so. But they begin to act that way as soon as they find out.
Through Quinn's peculiar vision, we glimpse wartime Vietnam, the confused childhood days that preceded it, and the aimless, rootless wandering that followed the war. We hear of Sonny's descent from State basketball champion to point-shaving pro in Norway, to drug mule, to prisoner. We learn of Rae's own restless drifting, no purpose to her life, no aims or goals, just a sequence of days to get through and occasional times to get high.

When Bernhardt tells Quinn, "Sometimes it is necessary to kill a man," Harry wants no part of it. Harry Quinn is a combat veteran and a survivor, and he can navigate through a violent landscape if things fall apart, but he isn't looking for trouble, he's just trying to get out of town with his good luck intact. Maybe that means getting back together with Rae, and maybe they'll have Sonny in tow.

Luck, however, starts to drain away like grains of sand, and intuition tells Quinn that his window of opportunity is closing. It is hard to depend on a plan when graft plays a central role, even in a place where graft seems to be a way of life. Sonny is still in prison when the avenues that could lead him back home start to close down, some closing with military barricades and some when lines of communication are cut. Guerrilla and army action disrupt life for all of Oaxaca and they disrupt the patterns and relationships that Quinn depended upon. As for Sonny, he has created more than enough bad luck for all of them.

TUGL is no summer potboiler of a novel, even though it offers plenty of suspense and danger. The story is hard and harsh, showing no sympathy and leaving many in its wake, like life itself. There are many villains and there are many victims. There are those who should survive and those who can't survive, and when they are one and the same, life and luck give Quinn and Rae pause. If they pause too long, however, they'll be dead.

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Amateur by Robert Littell: Thriller about the CIA being blackmailed by one of its own!

I must say that I have a great fondness for Robert Littell's books. This doesn't mean that these books are warm and fuzzy, far from it: they demand attention like the great and often complex thrillers that they are, while maintaining exceptional originality and the ability to surprise the reader, even this reader who has devoured seemingly the entire world of spy thrillers. Littell's outstanding writing, wry humor and unvarnished cynicism add a lot to the appeal. There is even more, however. Littell creates characters that are unique, but in wholly organic ways, with nothing forced or added just for show.

Some of the appealing subjects that recur in Littell's novels may be linked to his love of chess. In any event, they include cryptography and chaos theory, both of which appear as central parts of some novels. The books are never pedantic, however, and Littell shows us a lot about human nature and the way that the underworld of espionage often uses human nature as its currency.

I first heard the phrase, "Any thing worth doing is worth doing badly" rather incongruously in a research lab at England's Oxford University, in the late 1970s. At the very start of The Amateur, Littell uses this statement as an epigram that defines the amateur vs. the professional (the latter being one who is compelled to do everything well, at least everything that is worthwhile). The Amateur definitely delivers what it promises, a spy thriller from the amateur perspective, and woe betide any professionals who make the mistake of getting in this particular amateur's way.

The story begins with a terrorist invasion of a US embassy in Germany and the tragic shooting of one of the hostages. The young hostage was Sarah Diamond, the fiancee of one Charlie Heller, whose day job is devising unique codes and decoding messages for the CIA. Heller's night passion, other than Sarah, is searching for ciphers in Shakespeare's writing.

Heller is understandably crushed, and wants to know when the CIA is going after the terrorists to exact revenge. The answer is less than satisfactory: the CIA isn't going to take any action.

After trying normal channels, Heller reaches the limit of his patience, and literally takes matters into his own hands, which requires the dangerous scheme of blackmailing the CIA to turn him into a field agent. All of those secret messages he decoded turn out to be great blackmail material, compromising the highest CIA officials.

So, the race is on. While Heller is being trained and then sent behind the Iron Curtain to find the terrorists, the CIA rips apart his apartment, car and everything else they can find, looking for the stolen messages. Heller's mission is revenge. The CIA's mission is self-preservation: they want to destroy the incriminating information and then kill Heller on foreign soil, or, better yet, have a foreign intelligence agency do the job for them.

All along, Littell employs his trademark mix of humor, wit, action, word play and cynicism to great effect. Near the start, Heller is occupied with decoding messages from a dyslexic spy in Prague who can't use the codes properly. There is a stunning scene where Sarah's elderly father, a concentration camp survivor, watches CIA agents storm into his house, tear it apart and interrogate him: Mr. Diamond remarks that he isn't afraid because he has been through this kind of treatment before, when the Nazi's took his family to the camps. The American agents go blithely about their business, asserting that "this is different because it is a case of National Security," precisely echoing the very rationale used by the Nazi thugs 50 years earlier.

Littell really pumps up the volume once Heller crosses into Czechoslovakia. Multiple story lines emerge, they begin to intersect with violent results, and finally the stories converge in a stunningly deceitful and deadly manner. The collisions involve Heller, a Czech spymaster-Shakespearean scholar, the dyslexic Czech spy, the CIA and its agents, and, of course, the targeted terrorists. Revenge is a theme that unites several of the characters, from old Mr. Diamond to young Mr. Heller, and even the Eastern Block spymaster. Will their revenge be served hot, served cold, or not served at all?

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