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Which is to say, those I read in 2008, not those published in 2008.
10. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
“Good night, Dr. Buchbinder. Put in a good word for me with Messiah.”
“Oh,” he says, “there’s no need of that.”
“No need or no point?”
Abruptly, the merry eyes turn as steely as the disc of a dentist’s mirror. They assay Landsman’s condition with the insight of twenty-five years spent searching tirelessly for points of weakness and rot. Just for a moment Landsman doubts the man’s insanity.
“That’s up to you,” Buchbinder says. “Isn’t it?”
Heavy, convoluted and difficult to penetrate – even for Chabon – this book is worth the effort. It’s a dark and depressing investigation into an alternate universe where the Jewish homeland is on a barren Alaskan island, told from the perspective of a weary Yiddish homicide detective as he tries to solve a murder in the two months before the island reverts to U.S. territory. A major theme (aside from the ever-present Judaism) is the feeling of helplessness, of being manipulated by higher powers into an unshakeable destiny. Typical Jewish Chabon, that wacky fellow.
9. Slaughterhouse Five
Five German soldiers and a police dog on a leash were looking down into the bed of the creek. The soldiers’ blue eyes were filled with a bleary civilian curiosity as to why one American would try to murder another one so far from home, and as to why the victim should laugh.
Told with a simplistic, unemotional weariness, this book is a voyage through time and space, from the snowy battlefields of World War II to the distant alien planet of Tralfamadore. I’ve never been able to connect with Vonnegut’s writing the way other people seem to; it feels like everyone notices some deeper meaning to this book that I simply don’t. Nonetheless, it’s very readable, very compelling and very good.
8. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
They roared off, and so did we. Bouncing across the rocks and scrub oak cactus like iron tumbleweeds. The beer in my hand flew up and hit the top, then fell in my lap and soaked my crotch with warm foam.
“You’re fired,” I told the driver. “Take me back to the pits.”
Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney spend an insane, drug-fuelled week in Vegas, living dangerously and recklessly with that complete disregard for consequences that only fictional characters can achieve. This book is a lot more interesting than that makes it sound; it manages to stay fresh and funny throughout. Paranoid, depraved, surreal, colourful, and deliciously different, Fear And Loathing rightfully earned its place as a classic American novel.
7. Snow Crash
Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Walking a fine line between being utterly serious and nonsensically cartoonish, Snow Crash is best read as a simple adventure novel. Set in a balkanised future America where the corporations have carved the land up into self-sufficient, hyper-capitalist enclaves, the novel follows Hiro Protagonist (pizza delivery driver, world’s greatest sword fighter and hacker extraordinaire) and Y.T. (teenage skateboard courier) as they attempt to unravel a conspiracy involving a complex concept of universal language, rooted in the mythology of the Tower of Babel. I lost interest in that little subplot before long, but the major storyline ranks among the very best adventure tales, as Hiro travels from dystopic Los Angeles to an offshore raft city to the entirely virtual world of the online Metaverse in his quest to save the world.
6. The Road
On the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadows on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
Though they may be nameless, the man and the boy at the centre of this novel are some of the most profoundly human characters I have ever read about. Trekking through a post-apocalyptic, ash-choked America, hiding from violent gangs of rapists and murderers, expecting to die any day, the relationship between the two is the single flame of hope that exists in their bleak, grey world. A simple story of love and protection, set in a world that is frighteningly believable.
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time
I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.
Written from the point of view of Cristopher Boone, an autistic teenager, who lays his world out to the reader in the matter-of-fact language that is the only method he knows. Yet the novel is regularly peppered by emotional dialogue that juxtaposes the main narrative, revealing the emotional problems Cristopher’s very existence causes for those around him. A tale of human suffering and compassion, which is ultimately quite touching.
The phone nearest him rang. Automatically, he picked it up.
Faint harmonics, tiny inaudible voices rattling across some orbital link, and then a sound like the wind.
A fifty-lirasi coin fell from his hand, bounced, and rolled out of sight across Hilton carpeting.
“Wintermute, Case. It’s time we talk.”
It was a chip voice.
“Don’t you want to talk, Case?”
He hung up.
On his way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walk the length of the ranked phones. Each rang in turn, but only once, as he passed.
(incidentally, here’s my other choice for a Neuromancer extract)
“That’s real good, motherfucker,” Case said, and shot him in the mouth with the .357.
A watershed moment in science fiction, Neuromancer created an entirely new vision of the future: dark, grim, and pessimistic, overturning the traditional view that the rise of technology would somehow make the human race better. Instead, Gibson casts the reader into lurid neon cityscapes of crime, body modification and drug addiction, where humans of the 22nd century are facing essentially the same problems as today. It’s one of the few novels that can truly be called revolutionary.
Even below this postmodern literary value, the commentary on society and all that academic jazz, Neuromancer is simply an excellent story. It has a very cool anithero, the grungy, unshaven, methamphetamine-addicted hacker Case, who is recruited by an upscale genetleman named Armitage, who is assembling a team to work on the ultimate heist: the theft of the world’s most powerful AI from its orbital mainframe. Case is plucked from the Japanese underworld and travels to Istanbul, Paris, New York and eventually to the orbital cities of the rich and powerful, all the while trying to figure out who Armitage’s mysterious employer is and why they want to free the AI. Thriller, adventure, noirish crime caper… Neuromancer exists in many capacities, and is fully-realised in every one of them. An all-round brilliant book, which is only a hair’s breadth below Life of Pi because there were certain parts of it I didn’t quite understand, which will hopefully be solved with a few re-reads.
3. Life of Pi
“Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might. Yet the plain fact is that the Tsimtsum brought them together and then sank.”
Martel takes an apparently impossible situation and weaves it together with such deft writing ability that it becomes entirely plausible. A sixteen-year old Indian boy, travelling by ship to Canada with his zookeeper family and a number of animals they intend to sell in the New World following the closure of their zoo, finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a number of exotic creatures following the ship’s demise. The animals make quick work of each other and soon only he and a Bengal tiger remain, left to drift on the blue Pacific for 227 days.
Martel is one of those writers with a gift for creating beautifully evocative visual descriptions, and Pi’s life on the waves – the smell of salt, the fishing line burning his hands, the shape and contours of the tiger’s body – are all beautifully, realistically rendered in words. A wonderful book.
2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU
The fog-shrouded streets of Prague. A golem dressed in man’s clothing. A steamer under the Golden Gate Bridge. The New Jersey ferry docks on a sunny morning. Salvador Dali in a diving bell. Bones on the Atlantic seabed. Brooklyn steam-grates. An airship terminal on the highest floor of the Empire State Building. The abandoned grounds of the World’s Fair. A pyramid of skulls in a deserted military base. A Senate hearing. The loser at Lupe Velez. The stout cord of the ampersand. The crowning literary masterpiece of this decade.
“It’s September, 1961. John Kennedy is shaking my hand, asking what it’s like to be a superhero. I tell him he should know and he nods, laughing. Two years later, in Dallas, his head snaps forward and then back…”
It’s impossible to articulate how brilliant this book is. It is the Moby Dick of the graphic novel medium. It can be read as a comic book, a character drama, a moral fable, a cautionary tale, a mystery novel… and it succeeds as all of them. It has so much weight to it, so much heaviness. Moore and Gibbons waste not a single panel or sentence; everything has a purpose. It is a perfect book.
It’s also being adapted into a film by Zack Snyder (of 300 infamy) so make sure you READ IT before it gets retroactively ruined by another superhero movie that has a bunch of sexy actors in sexy clothing running at bad guys and having the scene cut to slow motion as they begin to strike them, then having it cut back to regular motion as the blow lands fuck you snyder you are going to fucking ruin this.
I ACED THIS SHIT
I read fifty books and just over sixteen thousand pages. I read books that were three millenia old, and books that had not been written when I started the challenge. I read Pulitzer Prize winners, Booker prize winners, Hugo Award winners, Nebula Award winners, a Vogel Award winner, a Whitbread Book of the Year, a Philip K. Dick Award winner, and eight books from TIME Magazine’s 100 List.
I read two comic books and four non-fiction books. I read three books that were originally published in different languages (Portugese, Spanish, and Ancient Greek). I read twenty books that I would classify as science fiction.
I read two books by Mark Twain, two books by Michael Chabon, two books by Ernest Hemingway, two books by John Varley, two books by Terry Pratchett, two books by Robert Heinlein, and (to my detriment) three books by Philip Jose Farmer.
I read some amazing books, some good books, some average books, and some mind-blowingly awful books. I read The Road, Gentlemen of the Road, Road Story, and On The Road. I started with an odyssey and finished with an odyssey.
I have to say I enjoyed it. I used to devour books when I was in primary school and early high school, but in recent years I have strayed from that path, lured by the siren song of flashy video games and Hollywood blockbusters and the simple joy of the ball in the cup (you can never tell which way that crazy thing’s gonna go!). I’ve rediscovered how much I enjoy reading, even if it is with the irritating knowledge that I have to wade through five books of junk before I reach one that’s any good.
I don’t think I’ll do the challenge again next year – I was always mindful of my goal, and it dissuaded me from reading particularly long books – but I don’t think I need to either. I’ve started expanding my library a lot, and I have plenty of books waiting to be read. I no longer require the motivation this challenge once provided.
For posterity, here’s the list of all 50 books I read this year, with links to my original reviews.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
3. The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson
4. Time Enough For Love by Robert Heinlein
5. Making Money by Terry Pratchett
6. Steel Beach by John Varley
7. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
8. Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
9. The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer
10. Temeraire by Naomi Novik
11. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein
12. The Dark Design by Philip Jose Farmer
13. Road Story by Julienne van Loon
14. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
15. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
16. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
17. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
18. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
19. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
20. Watership Down by Richard Adams
21. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick
22. Once Upon a Time in the North by Philip Pullman
23. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
24. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
25. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
26. The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
27. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
28. Neuromancer by William Gibson
29. The Magic Labyrinth by Philip Jose Farmer
30. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
31. Down Under by Bill Bryson
32. The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway
33. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
34. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
35. The Barbie Murders by John Varley
36. Flight: Volume I by Kazu Kibuishi
37. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
38. The General In His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
39. On The Road by Jack Kerouac
40. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
41. World War Z by Max Brooks
42. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
43. Alive by Piers Paul Read
44. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
45. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
46. Nation by Terry Pratchett
47. Following The Equator: Volume I by Mark Twain
48. Following The Equator: Volume II by Mark Twain
49. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
50. The Odyssey by Homer
Stay tuned for my list of the ten best books I read in 2008.
50. The Odyssey by Homer, English translation T.E. Shaw (circa 800 BC) 239 p.
It’s impossible to objectively judge a story like this. It was written three thousand years ago, in a world populated by people whose beliefs, values, attitudes, and outlook on the world were so fundamentally different from our own as to make them utterly alien. Furthermore, I was reading a story that had been translated through two different barriers: from Ancient Greek to English, and from poetry to prose.
It’s very verbose, very complex and very tedious. As I was reading, trying to penetrate the Greek names and long-winded sentences (look, I know what happens when someone gets drunk, you don’t need to feed me some meandering anecdote about a centaur that had too much wine) I was really only gaining a sort of vague outline of what was going on. And if that was the case I may as well have been reading the plot summary on Wikipedia.
Oh, right, an outline of the plot. You should know parts of it. Odysseus is trying to return home after going to the Trojan War, and it takes him twenty years because, well, he lives in dangerous times. It’s told in a convoluted, non-linear way that begins in media res and relies heavily on second-hand tellings and flashbacks, which is not at all endearing to a reader who is not enjoying himself in the first place.
All the stuff that’s really well-known and at least somewhat interesting – the cave of the Cyclops, the isle of Circe etc. – takes up about 20% of the book, while the rest is all concerned about whatever his wiener son Telemachus is doing back home, or what Odysseus himself does when he returns (two thirds of the way through the story).
Odysseus is a shitty leader who makes a lot of bad decisions, gets all his men killed and has his head shoved firmly up his own ass, constantly telling people how great he is at everything. He also has a pretty warped moral compass; for example, upon arriving home, after he bonds with Telemachus by slaughtering the 108 suitors who had been trying to woo his wife, he discovers that several of his housemaids had been having sex with the suitors during the TWENTY GODDAMN YEARS they’ve been there. I know, unthinkable, right? Odysseus is so infuriated by this that he orders them killed. As they are herded into a courtyard, weeping piteously, Telemachus speaks up, and for a minute I thought there was going to be some kind of sanity, but apparently young Telemachus, no doubt stroking his chin in deep thought, is concerned that the housemaids aren’t being punished enough, and orders for them to die in a slow and painful method. Then he and Odysseus cut a dude’s wang off and feed it to the dogs. You see what I mean when I talk about what different attitudes these people had.
So, to sum up, is the Odyssey an excellent tale for its time? Yes.
Is it an excellent tale for a modern reader? No – it hails from an incomprehensible culture, and our tastes are tailored to our own.
Is it worth studying for a student of literature? Yes – but do yourself a favour and google a synopsis.
Anyway, who cares, I made it to fifty books with 48 hours to spare.
Pages: 16, 272
49. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992) 438 p.
Hiro Protagonist is a freelance hacker, pizza delivery man for the Mafia, and the world’s greatest swordfighter, swashbuckling his way across a hyper-capitalist America in which the federal government has relinquished most of its power to corporations, whose self-contained enclave franchises line the privately-owned freeways of this dazzling dystopic… future? Or alternate history? The main character is in his twenties, but his father fought in World War II, which means Snow Crash can’t be taking place any later than… well, now.
Snow Crash is essentially Neuromancer on acid: a louder, more adrenaline-pumped book that contains many of the same themes and concepts, in much the same way that Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is On The Road on acid. The difference is that Fear And Loathing is much better than its predecessor, whereas Snow Crash is not. It’s an excellent book, but doesn’t seem quite sure of what it wants to be, creating a world that is almost cartoonishly over-the-top and yet takes itself completely seriously. It’s hard to know what to make of a novel that intersparses tedious discussions of Sumerian mythology with skateboarding chases and sword fights.
It’s still a lot of fun. The action scenes are excellent, and there’s a creative flair in every chapter – I was especially impressed with the Raft, an enormous floating construct of several ships lashed together, with a chaotic shanty town of smaller boats surrounding it, populated with refugees from all over the Pacific. Also interesting was the Metaverse, Stephenson’s virtual reality MMO that inspired Second Life (he also predicted Google Earth, although his version had real-time satellite feeds). And the climax was extremely well executed, one of those classic action-adventure structures that slowly moves all the characters into place for a fast-paced, explosive finale. I haven’t read one of those in a while, and I love them.
Snow Crash isn’t exactly a mess. It’s consistent all the way through. But it felt like a mess, because I could never truly believe the impossible world it was presenting – as opposed to Neuromancer, which took place in one of the most believable, well-realised fictional worlds I have ever read. Nonetheless, it’s still a great book, and recommended for any science fiction fans.
Pages: 16, 033
48. Following the Equator: Volume II by Mark Twain (1897) 337 p.
This second volume chronicling the voyages of America’s greatest writer sees our hero leaving Australasia and venturing across the Indian Ocean to the subcontinent, where he spends most of the book, then devotes a few chapters to South Africa before finishing up on the docks of Southhampton.
I didn’t like this one as much as the first, partly because it was about India rather than Australia, and I’m naturally more interested in hearing about my own nation. India is an awfully confusing place. Twain loves his statistics, and many chapters can be weighed down with them to the point of tedium (specifically when he discusses the Thuggee cult and the Boer troubles). Fortunately, these are balanced out by just as many amusing parts: Twain is unable to pronounce his Indian manservant’s name and thus calls him “Satan,” he refers to the holiest city in India as a “piety-hive,” he claims to kill thirteen tigers in a single day of hunting, and argues that among the many advantages of travelling by elephant is that you are high enough to look in through people’s windows.
Extract, from a railway station in South Africa:
A gaunt, shackly country lout six feet high, in battered grey slouched hat with wide brim, and old resin-coloured breeches, had on a hideous brand-new wolleen coat which was imitation tiger-skin – wavy broad stripes of dazzling yellow and deep brown. I thought he ought to be hanged, and asked the station-master if it could be arranged. He said no; and not only that, but said it rudely; said it with a quite unnecessary show of feeling. Then he muttered something about my being a jackass, and walked away and pointed me out to people, and did everything he could to turn public sentiment against me. It is what one gets for trying to do good.
Pages: 15, 595
47. Following the Equator: Volume I by Mark Twain (1897) 288 p.
Following the Equator was written at a time of great financial crisis for Twain. He had sunk all his money into a foolish investment in a “revolutionary typesetting machine,” which failed, and left him a hundred grand in the hole – equivalent to nearly $2 million today. To extricate himself from this debt he planned a global lecturing tour, with the route chosen to emphasise English-speaking countries. The first volume in this travelogue follows his misadventures in Hawaii, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.
I’ve never read anything by Mark Twain before. I suppose if I was American I would have read The Great American Novel in high school, but naturally I read the Great Australian Novel instead. So this was my first Twain book, and I was given an opportunity to view my own nation, in the late 19th century, through the eyes of an outsider. It was similar to Down Under in a way, as both writers thoroughly enjoy their time in Australia, with plenty of compliments, and observations on the curious nature of the Australian inferiority complex considering the fact that most foreign visitors are utterly enchanted by this country. Both visitors also criticise Australia’s dark past, and for Twain this is no mean feat, considering that he was writing at a time when Aboriginals were considered to be no better than animals. It’s all well and good to look contemptuously on the mistakes of the past from a smug modern vantage point, but to be the man decrying such horrors as they are going on around him is quite laudable.
Twain would be a rare breed for this reason alone – compassionate, progressive thinking, breaking away from mindsets which we today consider abhorrent. But he is a jewel among pebbles for other reasons, too. He’s funny, intelligent, witty, and accessible even to the 21st century reader. It’s always a pleasure to be able to read non-fiction more than 100 years old and find that it is easily understandable and relatable.
Pages: 15, 258
46. Nation by Terry Pratchett (2008) 404 p.
Terry Pratchett, one of my favourite authors, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in December 2007. I didn’t find that out until mid-2008, which was kind of like when Robert Jordan died and I didn’t find out for months, except that I couldn’t care less about Jordan whereas the thought of Pratchett becoming an empty husk of a man without any memory or awareness makes me legitimately sad. He is truly one of the finest living writers, and easily the greatest English satirist since Swift.
Inevitably, as I read his latest piece of work, I was wondering if the disease was already beginning to affect his mind. Nation is a very different novel from most of Pratchett’s books. It’s not Discworld, for a start, and it seems to be missing a lot of the typical puns and humour that are present in every second paragraph of the Discworld novels.
Nation takes place in an alternate version of our own world’s 19th century, on a remote island in the South Pacific simply called “Nation.” The protagonist is a young tribal native called Mau, who is returning home to Nation after a month-long stay on an uninhabited island as part of his initiation into manhood. When he arrives home, however, he discovers that a tidal wave has killed every living soul on the island, and left behind a shipwrecked British vessel with a teenage girl as the sole survivor. As refugees from neighbouring islands begin to arrive on Nation, Mau finds himself thrust into a leadership role, while still struggling to cope with the trauma of losing his entire tribe.
Angry with the gods, Mau begins to question their existence, and the many traditions and beliefs that he has taken for granted his entire life. This is the key theme of Nation: a defence of the scientific method, encouraging you to think in different ways, to challenge what you are told, and to reject blind faith. That’s not all there is to it, of course, and I’m not sure whether to call it an atheistic or deistic or humanist narrative. It’s more complicated than that, like life itself, as Pratchett is wise enough to display.
I think the lack of humour was intentional. It’s not gone entirely, just toned down from the average Discworld novel, and it works just as well. Nation is a very good book, readable on a number of different levels, and enjoyable whether you’re a philosopher or a teenager. It’s not as good as some of the finer Discworld novels (Night Watch is his magnum opus and I doubt he will ever top it), but Pratchett’s still got it… for now.
Pages: 14, 970
45. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952) 127 p.
This is Hemingway’s most famous book, a short novella that reinvigorated his literary career and won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s also the last book he ever wrote. The Old Man and the Sea follows the plight of an aging Cuban fisherman who has not caught a fish in eight-four days, losing hope and pride, his apprentice forbidden to work with him because he is now considered bad luck.
And I didn’t really like it that much, which is annoying, because I really wanted to. A lot of people talk about how his simplistic style of prose draws the reader into the tale, makes it more intense and passionate, but I felt exactly the opposite. It was tedious and it never really engaged me. Reading passages about hooks and fish and bait and the ocean, I couldn’t help but keep comparing it to Life of Pi, a book which features far more atmospheric renderings of the same topics.
Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to be reading today, or maybe it’s just not my kind of fiction, but this one was a miss.
Pages: 14, 566
44. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007) 411 p.
In 1940, when World War II was still nothing more than a distant brouhaha to the Americans, the U.S. government considered opening up Alaskan settlement to displaced European Jews. The proposal was killed in Congress, largely due to Anthony Dimond, Alaskan delegate to the House of Representatives and a major opponent of the program for financial reasons (officially) and anti-Semitic reasons (allegedly).
In Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Dimond is killed in a car accident before the bill can be overturned, and a section of Baranhof Island in the Alaskan panhandle is opened up to Jewish settlement. History is tweaked; Jews flock to Alaska, less remain in Europe, the Nazis therefore spend less effort on killing them than they do in fighting the war, the war drags on for longer, and the 1948 Israeli independence movement is unsuccessful. The U.S. District of Sitka becomes the international Jewish homeland; cold, distant and just as bitter as the Diaspora itself.
And so this is an alternate history novel: science fiction, in keeping with Chabon’s recent desire to experiment with genre fiction. But it’s also a detective novel, in which alcoholic homicide detective Myer Landsman must solve the execution-style murder of one of his junkie neighbours in the seedy hotel he calls home. Naturally this leads him on a noirish investigation into the dark heart of Sitka, the Hasidic Jews and their organised crime, his chess-addicted former espionage director uncle, the mysterious connections and conspiracies, the men in suits from the U.S. government. This takes place in late 2007, shortly before the “Reversion” on New Year’s Day 2008: the return of Sitka to U.S. territory, leaving a teeming city of Jews with nowhere to go.
Chabon’s style is, as usual, heavily reliant on visual metaphors. I have no issue with this (it is, in fact, my favourite style of writing) but it’s strange to see it applied to a detective novel. And in fact I’m not sure if that’s what this is. So many genres are blended in this book that Chabon sometimes seems to lose sight of them. The detective cliches come down thick and fast for the first few chapters, before drifting off as Chabon focuses on his usual heavy themes of literary fiction. It’s a great book, certainly five stars, but it just seems a lot less sure about itself than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was. Granted, Kavalier & Clay was Pulitzer material which I personally consider to to be the greatest novel written in the last ten years. So The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, while it can’t measure up to its heavier older brother, is nonetheless a great read that I can reccomend to pretty much anybody, provided they’re willing to struggle through Chabon’s complex prose for the rewards that lie on the other side.
It also won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, which I think is a lot like sending David Beckham to play a game of soccer with a group of 12-year old kids and then giving him the award for best player.
“I did not know this man. He was put in my way. I was given the opportunity to know him, I suppose, but I declined it. If this man and I had gotten to know each other, possibly we would have become pals. Maybe not. He had his thing with heroin, and that was probably enough for him. It usually is. But whether I knew him or not, and whether we could have grown old together holding hands on the sofa down in the lobby, is neither here nor there. Somebody came into this hotel, my hotel, and shot that man in the back of the head while he was off in dreamland. And that bothers me. Set aside whatever general objections I might have worked up over the years to the underlying concept of homicide. Forget about right and wrong, law and order, police procedure, departmental policy, Reversion, Jews and Indians. This dump is my house. For the next two months, or however long it turns out to be, I live here. All these hard-lucks paying rent on a pull-down bed and a sheet of steel bolted to the bathroom wall, for better or worse, they’re my people now. I can’t honestly say I like them very much. Some of them are all right. Most of them are pretty bad. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let somebody walk in here and put a bullet in their heads.”
Pages: 13, 439
43. Alive by Piers Paul Read (1974) 318 p.
Everybody is vaguely aware of the story of the Andes plane crash: the rugby team that went down in the mountains and resulted in the survivors being forced to eat the flesh of the dead. That’s all most people know about it – that one grisly detail. Granted, it’s an important part, but after reading this book I can say that it’s only one part among many.
Forty-five people were on Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, a plane chartered by the alumni rugby team of Montevideo’s Stella Maris College to attend a match in Santiago, Chile. Aside from the team members themselves, there were also friends and family onboard who had taken the opportunity to support the team and visit Chile. As it was flying through the Andes, a combination of bad conditions and pilot error caused it to clip the side of the mountain. One wing was torn off, flew backwards and sheared the entire tail section off the plane. Then the other wing came off. A crippled tube of a plane sailed through the air before sliding down a mountainside and coming to a halt in a snow-filled valley. Thirty-one of the plane’s forty-five passengers and crew were still alive. Only sixteen of them would leave the mountain alive.
They had crashed in a snowy desert. In one survivor’s words, there was nothing around them but “aluminium, plastic, ice and rock.” They had abundant water in the form of melted snow, but no food. Within weeks, they were forced to resort to eating the bodies of the dead passengers to stay alive. But this feature of their ordeal, which has been so reiterated and emphasised, poked fun at by everything from the Simpsons to Newstopia, is only one part of a much larger odyssey of survival. I will admit that I was originally attracted to this story because I’m a Lost fanatic. I’m absolutely fascinated by the concept of being on a plane, an ordinary person on an everday flight, and suddenly being plunged into a survival situation which pushes you to your physical and mental limits. As far as I can tell, this is the only situation in history where a plane has crashed and a number of survivors have been left isolated for an extended period of time. The crash occurred on October 13, 1972, and the boys were not rescued until December 23.
The bulk of this book concerns not the horrific act of cannibalism, but the myriad of other trials they faced to stay alive in such an inhospitable environment: an avalanche which killed eight of them and left the fuselage buried for three days, an expedition to locate the plane’s tail section, a frustrating two weeks spent trying to repair the radio, and their last-ditch effort to survive which sent two of their fittest, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, on a westward trek towards Chile to alert the outside world that they were still alive. It is a fitting reward to the courage, perseverance and resourcefulness of these young men – all but one of whom were in their teens or early twenties – that they were not rescued by a search team, but rather achieved deliverance through their own gutsy determination and will to survive.
Having said all that, I found this book compelling because of the real-life events it described, not because of any particular skill on Read’s part. While he certainly went to great lengths to track down enough information to weave a detailed account of the events, his position as an outsider naturally makes them feel somewhat distant and impersonal. Someone interested in the crash might be better off reading Nando Parrado’s personal account, Miracle In The Andes. Regardless, this is a story that is carried on the strength (and it’s a great strength indeed) of its real-life events, and I have no major issue with Read’s method of telling the story. Michael Chabon and Dan Brown could write books about this event, which would be at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum, and both versions would be equally engaging. No matter how it is told, this is an ageless tale of heroism, courage and adaptability. It’s just a shame that it’s so often remembered as a lurid story about the taboo of cannibalism.
He warned them that what they had done might come as a shock to the outside world.
“But will people understand?” the boys asked him.
“Of course,” he reassured them. “When the full facts are known, everyone will understand that you did what had to be done.”
Pages: 13, 028