Tag Archives: Simon Vance

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau

Book of JonasNeed the verdict first? READ THIS.

Stephen Dau‘s The Book of Jonas is one of those rare, shattering, lingering, breathtaking-at-unexpected-moments debut novels that arrive so perfectly formed you’re left both haunted (wondering what you could possibly read next to dispel the terror) and grateful (utterly so, that you were provided this literary gift).

The Book is actually not a single story, but three: Jonas, who reinvents himself from a sole survivor of his unnamed Middle Eastern (as written on the inside book jacket) or Central Asian (seemingly Afghan by description) village into an American-in-the-making; Christopher, a U.S. soldier stationed far from home, both taking and saving lives, who confesses his wartime actions in a hidden leather journal; and Rose, Christopher’s mother who still waits, if not for her son, then for some semblance of answers. To tell you more of the sparse, intricate narrative would surely be an injustice to your own discovery …

That said, might I share a few suggested details that might enhance your reading … although, I also encourage you to go directly to the book (via the page or stuck in your ears, so elegantly voiced by audible favorite Simon Vance) – I won’t take your redirection personally.

The title clearly indicates the importance of names: “Jonas” is a form of Jonah – as in ‘ … and the whale’ – and is as an Anglicization of the Arab name Younis/Yūnis; Christopher is the patron saint of travelers who protects against accidents and sudden death, usually depicted with a child in his arms. The good book is presented not unlike the religious text it suggests, its chapters marked from “Processional” to “Recessional,” with “Communion,” “Confession,” and “Benediction” in between.

The so-called “inerrant word of God” is filled with “internal inconsistencies,” and “the writings themselves live in metaphor, that they seek not to convey factual information, but to reveal larger truths.” The same might be said of the best fiction.

“‘Unfortunately … our country sometimes has a habit of making a mess with its left hand and cleaning it up with its right.’” Or at least tries to … except that in war, the question of ‘how’ gets impossibly blurred as collateral damage exponentially multiplies.

Pay attention to forms: “For everything he needs to do, there seems to be a corresponding form. …[T]he average person living in America will spend six months filling out forms.”

But be wary of easy labels: Victim, perpetrator, terrorist, refugee, criminal, man, boy, human, alien, arsonist, fireman, archivist, vandal, outsider – “He can neither place himself into context, nor can he be placed.”

And, if you got this far, heed the final word: READ.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Middle Eastern, Nonethnic-specific

Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Equal of the Sun“Based on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom” seems to be the dominant short-hand description (even on its own back cover) of Anita Amirrezvani‘s historical novel set in 16th-century Persia, now modern Iran. Some might find that description misleading, and expect this to be Princess Pari’s story, told in Pari’s voice. The narrative actually belongs to her chief eunuch and advisor, Javaher, who Amirrezvani reveals in the “Author’s Note” is one of several “invented characters.” Lest you feel deprived, don’t: Javaher makes for an excellent protagonist (especially as voiced by a perennial audible favorite, Simon Vance). He takes immediate control with the very first words – “I swear to you …” – as he declares his unwavering intention to “set down the truth about the princess.” He explains, “As Pari’s closest servant, I not only observed her actions but carried out her orders. I realized that upon my death, everything I know about her would disappear if I failed to document her story.”

Scant documentation survives about Princess Pari who was the favored daughter of Tahmasb Shah (1514-1576), the second ruler of the Safavi dynasty which reigned over one of the most significant Persian empires. In Sun, the few known major events of Pari’s royal existence are a vehicle for Javaher to share his enthralling, detail-laden experiences – and Amirrezvani makes exceptional use her fictional freedom – both inside the carefully-guarded harem and considerably beyond the palace gates.

Javaher joins Pari’s service, personally chosen by the revered, celebrated Shah. In order to prove his loyalty to the same royal court that accused and executed his father on distorted charges, Javaher has shockingly emasculated himself as a young man – much later than his fellow eunuchs who were made so in early boyhood. Javaher is determined to reclaim both his shattered family’s honor … and their former power. When the Shah dies unexpectedly without naming his chosen heir, Pari (and much of the court) knows that as his favored protegé, she is by far the best prepared, most knowing successor … if only she were not a woman. More and more, Pari’s brilliant, dangerous machinations rely on Javaher’s silence, his devotion, his intelligence, and his access to outside connections.

Because this is Javaher’s story, Sun moves beyond his royal service with intriguing subplots that include his personal quest to seek revenge on his father’s accuser, his determination to save his younger sister from their greed-driven aunt, and (with enough detail to make one blush at least a few shades of grey) his surprising romantic liaisons (birth control measures not required). Untethered by recorded facts, Amirrezvani’s fictional hero is a fascinating creation, fully aware of his Machiavellian choices, unbending in his determination to succeed: “If this book were discovered by the wrong man, I could be executed, for I have committed monstrous deeds and made mistakes that I would prefer not to reveal – although what man hasn’t?” he muses. “Man is flawed by his very nature. His ears hear only what they wish; God alone knows the absolute truth.” Amen to that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American, Persian

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

How wrenchingly ironic that this was the book I happened to be reading when I learned of a sudden death in our family. On the flight, in the car, during the rare moments of aloneness over the last four days, Kazuo Ishiguro’s stories that spoke of lost chances and endings provided an ideal counterpoint – both gentle and piercing – to the maelstrom of required public and private events of mourning.

Nocturnes – Ishiguro’s only short story collection thus far, as well as his latest title – is comprised of five stories in which music plays a principal role. Some are interlinked: two share characters, two share locations. In the opening “Crooner,” a young guitarist is hired by once legendary singer Tony Gardner – who was the guitarist’s mother’s favorite star – to play underneath Gardner’s wife’s open window as Gardner sings her love songs on the final evening of their bittersweet Venetian vacation. Lindy Gardner, that very wife who is now divorced, reappears in the (singular) “Nocturne,” recovering from cosmetic surgery in a posh Los Angeles hotel, sharing musical adventures with a saxophone player whose agent, soon-to-be ex-wife, and her lover convince the gifted musician that his less-than-gorgeous looks are the only obstacle to major success. In the finale, “Cellists,” the story returns to Venice, perhaps to the same transient band in “Crooners,” in which possibly another member – this time a Hungarian cellist – meets another American musician who nurtures and refines his already considerable talents … but to what end?

Of the remaining two pieces not linked to the three above, both feature troubled ménage à trois-of-sorts: “Come Rain or Come Shine” examines a trio-friendship decades after its university beginnings, in which the loner – a jazz purist – visits the couple on the verge of separation; in “Malvern Hills,” a struggling young British musician finds himself unexpectedly, intimately wedged in between a Swiss couple on their countryside holiday.

For Ishiguro devotees, Nocturnes might prove to be lighter fare than his six previous novels (and, yes, I’ve read each with fervent reverence). While each of the brief movements of this quintet are memorably haunting, the short story form just doesn’t allow enough space for the soulful, detailed, exquisite explorations that define Ishiguro’s longer work. That said, for an enhanced experience, I highly recommend the narrated version, made noteworthy with careful phrasing and added accents, especially as voiced by Mark Bramhall who begins and ends the audible collection.

Read (or listen) … the best music will always move you to tears, no?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, British, British Asian

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

An aborted suicide is probably not the most solid basis from which to start a lasting friendship … but for bestselling author Nick Hornby, it’s certainly an interesting place to start quite the irreverent novel.

Four desperate souls somehow find themselves gathered on the roof of a London “tower block” on New Year’s Eve, each determined to take the leap. Martin, once a famous talk-show host, is fed up with trying to rebuild his life after surviving jail for getting caught sleeping with a 15-year-old girl. Maureen is an isolated, middle-aged single mother with a challenging teenager who never matured beyond a toddler’s abilities. Jess is the foul-mouthed privileged daughter of a dysfunctional family temporarily distraught with unrequited love. And JJ, the one American, is a would-be musician who’s lost his girlfriend and his band, and realizes delivering pizzas in a city not his own is not how he wants to spend the rest of his life.

Except their rash New Year’s Eve resolution, the quartet has nothing else in common. But they somehow end up saving each other from jumping that night … and many more nights to come. With mutual poking and prodding, each manages to shed enough of their debilitating degrees of self-absorption to still be standing on solid (enough) ground by book’s end …

Admittedly, Long Way is no About a Boy or High Fidelity, two of Hornby’s more successful novels. The ending (which I’ve sort of just given away without really meaning to) is of the head-scratching, careless shrugging variety.

That said, if you’re looking for some quick-moving light entertainment (in spite of its undeniably serious subject), skip the book (that’s a first coming from me!) and grab the audible version instead. In addition to the never-disappointing Simon Vance who glibly voices Martin just right, Scott Brick (who’s narrated hundreds of those mega-adventure thrillers by Clancy, DeMille, Cussler, etc.) poignantly captures the questioning JJ, while Kate Reading is surprisingly convincing as both maudlin Maureen and impossible Jess. Without a doubt, the robust cast definitely adds surprisingly heft and strength to the anemic pages …

Tidbit: HOLY MOLY! I just found out Kate Reading is the audio-name for Jennifer Mendenhall, one of my favorite DC-based actresses!!! Egads, no wonder she sounded so familiar!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2005

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British

The Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland

I’m probably one of the last readers on earth to have managed to avoid this international (posthumous) publishing phenomenon. I might as well confess right now that I never finished the Harry Potter series, either (made it through the first three with gritted teeth, but hey, at least I tried!). The Larsson trilogy, in large part thanks to the narrating prowess of Simon Vance, makes for entertaining (albeit somewhat uneven, often implausible) company on long runs … in fact, Dragon Tattoo got me through the Park City Marathon last month (the first 16 miles were gruelingly uphill!), and I admit I definitely got hooked (lack of oxygen – it’s up at 7,000 feet – might also have been a factor).

The original Swedish title for Dragon Tattoo seems far more fitting: in English translation, it’s Men Who Hate Women. Certainly, the male species isn’t particularly well-portrayed throughout the trilogy – but I’m getting ahead of myself …

Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist publisher of Millennium magazine, has made a mess of his career, finding himself charged with libel against a powerful corporate magnate, Hans-Erik Wennerström. While Blomkvist is waiting to serve his jail term, he’s summoned by a wealthy, aging businessman, Henrik Vanger, to solve a decades-old family mystery: the disappearance of Henrik’s beloved niece Harriet, long presumed dead. Harriet, it turns out, was also once Blomkvist’s babysitter.

Blomkvist is eventually paired with the eponymous ‘girl,’ Lisbeth Salandar, who was originally hired by Vanger Enterprises to do a background check on Blomkvist. Once he gets over his initial grumbling, Blomkvist realizes Salander is an unpredictable amalgam of immeasurable talents. She’s quite the enigma – a loner, socially inept, but brilliant beyond description. She’s been brutalized and victimized, but she’s managed to survive unspeakable horrors. Her tiny size belies her fierce prowess which proves well-matched against Blomkvist’s ego …

In part 2, Fire, which apparently retains its original title in English translation, Salander is missing through most of the book – a definite detriment to the story. The Wennerström affair has left Blomkvist dealing with the annoyances of being a major celebrity. Salander got so annoyed with Blomkvist that she’s taken a year off to travel the world. Back in Stockholm, Blomkvist is at a loss as to what he did to lose Salander, but he’s busy enough working with freelance journalist, Dag Svensson, who presents Millennium with a major sex-trafficking exposé. Svensson’s girlfriend is preparing her doctoral thesis on the same subject from an academic perspective. The two end up brutally murdered, and Salander is named the prime suspect. Blomkvist is convinced otherwise and is determined to prove her innocence.

Fire is the weakest link of the trilogy – overwritten with too many useless subplots and tediously repetitive enough to make you question if the iPod has gotten inexplicably stuck. The Swedish police are arrogant misogynists and/or blundering fools; private detectives and journalists don’t fare much better. Men do little than behave very, very badly. Worst of all, the whodunit portion is so glaringly obvious by page 131 (in the hardcover edition), you can practically skip to the last chapter and save yourself a few hundred pages.

Which brings us to the conclusion, finally. Originally titled The Air Castle That Was Blown Up, Salander spends over half the book in a hospital bed. But a near-comatose, recovering Salander is better than missing from the page, which makes Nest considerably better than Fire, although still not on par with Dragon. Shot in the head and buried alive by her father and half-brother (dysfunction in this family knows no bounds), Salander is fighting for her life, while Blomkvist is battling her many detractors. This time the Swedish government and its ultra secret division of Swedish Security get flayed.

The final courtroom showdown, with Blomkvist’s sister Annika Giannini making mincemeat of liars, cheaters, murderers, rapists, and pedophiles, is delicious revenge, well peppered with blunt, curse-filled interjections from Salander. But before your reward, you’ll have to suffer through long bouts of tedious treading, including a strangely unnecessary stalking plot involving a pathetic miscreant who blames his desperate situation on being ignored by Millenium‘s editor-in-chief Erika Berger waaaaay back in high school.

All that said, Salander is ultimately worth the wading and wait. Will I miss Salander? Absolutely. She truly is indomitable. In one of the endless articles about Larsson, he recounts his neverending guilt over witnessing at age 15, the gang rape of a young girl whose name happened to be Lisbeth. He didn’t , or couldn’t, help her then. Decades later in his vivid imagination, he does allow her to save her own self, over and over and over again … nail gun and all! Literal justice indeed.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008-2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, European

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford

At the end of a six-year stint in Beijing as the China correspondent for NPR, Rob Gifford sent his wife and children ahead to London to start their new lives. Gifford, who first arrived in China as a language student in his early 20s, embarks on a two-month, 3,000-mile journey across China’s Route 312 – not unlike U.S. Route 66 – which joins Shanghai to the western Chinese border with Kazakhstan. “For twenty years, my life has been entwined with China, and my experiences here have shaped the person I have become,” he writes. “And this road trip is a way of saying goodbye.”

Gifford’s two decades of on-the-ground experience, and even more importantly his fluency in Mandarin, allow him privileged access. To call his subjects diverse is beyond understatement; they are fascinating, unique, shocking, inspiring, exasperating, eloquent, opinionated … and many of them, patriotic and proud.

China’s international rise, as presented by the western media, has predominantly been centered on the meteoric metamorphosis in its major cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai. More recently, the “yellow threat” is back in the news again and often – from the superiority of Chinese students (at least in test scores) to the looming threat of China’s growing economic power as western debt rises. In spite of the lightning changes, reading Gifford’s already four-year-old book actually couldn’t be more timely. Beyond the numbers and statistics, Gifford introduces you to the actual people.

Traveling on sleek trains, bone-rattling busses, hitchhiked trucks, lovers’ taxis, friends’ jeeps, Gifford’s journey is, of course, most memorable because of the people he meets along the way: a cave-dwelling hermit with a cell phone who lives up a sacred mountain; a city doctor who travels to small towns enforcing the one-child policy, who speaks so matter-of-factly about the late-term (even live birth!) abortions she must sometimes perform; a small Christian congregation whose members insist that he preach an impromptu sermon when their traveling pastor does not arrive; a roomful of dying men infected with AIDs after a monstrously disastrous government-sponsored blood-collecting scheme that wiped out whole villages too remote to make international headlines; and perhaps the most chilling of all, a Chinese language teacher who explains that to hold on to his Tibetan heritage is to remain enslaved in poverty although he draws the line at taking a Chinese wife.

With his sharp, questioning journalism background, Gifford effectively weaves in Chinese history, politics, economics, and culture that give his masterful stories a deeper context and insight beyond the details of individual daily lives. From Genghis Khan’s invasion to unparalleled empires, to the shameful destruction resulting from western colonialism, to the genocidal Japanese invasion, to the ruthless control of Mao’s regime, to today’s Communist/capitalist conundrum, Gifford presents a China of unlimited contradictions.

Join Gifford on his mesmerizing cross-country trek– whether on the page or take it along on your iPod (the latter highly recommended, crisply read by Simon Vance). This is one journey you won’t hear – or even think! – ‘are we there yet?’ even once!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, British, Chinese