The Strangler Vine


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The word “thug” is derived from the Hindu and Irdu word “thag”, which in turn are derivative from the Sanskrit “sthagati” (to conceal). Their roots are Indian, describing a thief or swindler as early as 1300 A.D., and later an organization of criminals and assassins who purportedly from birth worship Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Thug and the cult of Thuggee found its way into English usage through the British colonization of India, and the efforts of British Superintendent charged in the 1820s and 1830s with the eradication of these people who prayed on travels on the road. Revisionist history of the period, claims that the extent of this cult was exaggerated by the Empire to take and keep control of India by killing thousands of Indian. The author, M.J. Carter, claims that Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” was inspired by Thuggee children. This is an interesting short history about the etymology of the word “thug” on See

“The Strangler Vine” is an entertaining and fast-reading novel that is loosely based on this Victorian period in India, as narrated by the hero, Lieutenant Avery, of the East India Company. He and a non-conformist Jeremiah Blake, a talented ex-Captain of the East India Company, are charged with finding a certain poet-novelist, Mountstuart, who has written a novel that is scandalizing an important Raj and the East India Company. They traverse India from Calcutta to Jubbulpore and back to Mirzapore, where the Company is ostensibly mobilizing to travel north with thousands of soldiers who would need to be fed by famine starving Indians. There is rough historical context, as this did happen in 1837-38 which lead to the so-called Afghan War during which the British were slaughtered while trying to depose an Afghan ruler that they presumed was encouraging the Russians to invade northern India. The author kindly provides a historical afterward and a glossary of the Hindi words that are generously sprinkled throughout the novel to instill a sense of place.

The novel is pure entertainment and has a touch of a Hollywood movie in both action and character. If you have higher literary or historical expectations you might be disappointed, but the author is only aspiring to entertain and to impart some knowledge. I was not disappointed.



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I was in Prague last summer. It is a beautiful city. It is home to one of the best zoos in the world and I knew nothing about it. It is the second most visited place in Prague. If you view the website for the zoo it has pictures of free roaming giraffes and a history of the zoo. The history mentions nothing about the subject of J.M. Ledgard’s historical fiction debut novel “Giraffe.”

Mr. Ledgard is a journalist with “The Economist” who is a person with diverse interests and experience.  Born in the Shetland Islands and educated in England and America, as a political and war correspondent he has been posted to Czechoslovakia and East Africa, and is a supporter of Africa and environmentalism.

The  novel “Giraffe” uncovers the extermination of the largest herd of animals held in captivity. It occurred at the Prague zoo while Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule and was deliberately kept silent, up until this novel. There is no mention of it on the Prague Zoo’s website, even today.

For anyone traveling to the Czech Republic it would be a great companion as it blends, local geography, history and local culture with the story. There is an under-current of anti-Communism throughout the book, mostly from a social perspective. The Czechs are symbolically within their own zoo under the Communist rule.

The weakness in the novel is in the first two short chapters in which the author uses one of the giraffes as a narrator. Although there is a multiplicity of narration throughout the novel, each providing individual perspective of the same event, these first two chapters don’t work. A good editor should have noted this for a debut writer of fiction. The prose and plot apart from this are strong throughout. The writing and dialogue is clear and realistic. Minimal use of adjectives is consciously made.

The principal narrator is a scientist whose knowledge of hemodynamics and the biology of giraffes is imparted throughout the novel.

” I am more concerned … with the viscosity of giraffe blood, five time thicker than water, with a multiplication of crimson stars, in better distribution of oxygen, with jugular veins several centimeters in diameter, stoppered with one way valves, in such a way as to regulate the flow from the head when it is lifted from the ground. There are thirty-two giraffes here, each with a wonder net hidden from view. When a giraffe splays its legs and sets down its head to drink, the pressure on its cranial vasculature triples. The giraffe’s cerebral blood vessels are too thin-walled to constrict against it. But for the wonder net, the giraffe would collapse, as cosmonauts do when certain g-force is applied. It is the wonder net that keeps the living form of giraffes pushed up, even to resemble creatures from a world of lesser gravity. When the head goes down, its endless shunts and meanders spread elastically across the base of the cranium, absorbing the flow that rushes in through the carotid artery.”

From the ecological role giraffes play on the plains of Africa and their depiction in art and by historical cultures, to the social condition of life in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, this novel bleeds information and perspective. The author later wrote a well-received novel “Submergence” which ranges from war, politics, espionage, to oceanography, with a venue in Somalia. It would not surprise me if the author has done work with MI6.

The author dedicates the “Giraffe” to the late Czech photographer and avant-garde film maker Alexandr Hackenschmied.

This is a novel worth reading even if you are not traveling to the Czech Republic. For me this novel is an example of why I love my library. I go to it with a long list of TBR books and then discover something on the shelf I otherwise would never have read.

This book was a nice start for 2017.


Abahn Sabana David


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There is existential foreboding in Marguerite Duras’ “Abahan Sabina David.” Written in the 1970s, it was first translated into English in 2016 and published by Open Letter at the University of Rochester. Samuel Beckett’s style in “Waiting for Godot” comes to mind while reading this. It could easily be a play, and might be better as one.

Jewish persecution is facially at the heart of this ambiguous work which imagines a period after one state’s concentration camps followed by similar, but more individual, extermination by a communist state or organization. A Jew, Abahn, is being held by Sabana and David, a fallen communist, on orders of a presumed communist leader, Gringo, who intends to kill the Jew. The Jew is indifferent. His crime, if any, is questioning, although resentment of or competition to merchants might be a reason. David’s desire for Abahn’s dogs, who inhabit the surrounding forest, might be another. Persecution does not require a reason, only an excuse. They are joined by another Abahn, also a Jew, who questions the reasons for their involvement.  The Jews are likely used as a symbol of the universally persecuted.

The prose is sparse and cryptic. An example:

” Her gaze returns to the Jew.

‘This is the house of the Jew?’


In the park, dogs bark and howl.

David turns his head, looks toward the park.

The howling dies down.

Its quiet again. David turns away from the park, back to the others.

‘You were sent by Gringo?'”

The New Yorker review says “Duras language and writing shine like crystals”

Translation by Kazim Ali must have been extremely difficult. This aside, I have no idea what this novel is about. For me it is not thought-provoking, just opaque. I read other reviews to see if I was being ignorant, but I found none that would explain what this work is about. This could be explained by existentialism, or the “new novel”, but in the end it left me empty. The good news- it was only 108 pages.





2016 Books and Authors Reviewed- With my favorites and disappointments

This year I read 39 books. Most were historical fiction, foreign fiction, or a combination of both. I also read a few works of non-fiction, ranging from biography, U.S. civil rights, financial history (2008 crash) and literary history (Shakespeare). Foreign literature included the following countries (England excluded): Australia; Canada; Chile; Estonia-Finland;France; Germany; India; Ireland; Italy; Kuwait; Mexico; Palestinian; Philippines; South Africa; Turkey; Zimbabwe. I struggled to read one literary classic Moby Dick- which accounted for no reviews in October.

As my favorites are different genres and invite no comparison, I will list them as highly recommended. My reviews of all 39 books are listed by month of review.

Highly Recommended.

The Road– by Cormac McCarthy. A classic of dystopian fiction. It is a writing lesson. A superb use of spare language.

The Night Circus– by Erin Morgenstern. A fantasy that absolutely delights. Outside of Neil Gaimen I have not read this genre. If there are more works like these I would definitely revise my reading habits.

My Name is Lucy Barton– by Elizabeth Strout. An accomplished writer of characters, this Booker Long-Listed novel is facially about a daughter-mother relationship, with serious undercurrents. For writers who want to learn understatement is impactful.

Authors I am an increasing fan of:

Nadeem Aslam

Kamila Shamsie


Great Debut Novel:

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.



The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison.

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.


I hesitate to make TBR resolutions as I am always finding and reading something not on my list. I likely will try another classic I have not read: Don Quixote; Crime & Punishment; or 100 Years of Solitude. I have been gifted The Christmas Tree Kid, which are Brooklyn, NY short stories by my neighbor Pete Hamill. I do want to read another novel by Peter Mattheissen, Margaret Atwood and perhaps short stories by Lydia Davis. As always, way too much to choose from and more keep coming.

Enjoy a peaceful New Year!


Purge by Sofi Oksanen. Foreign Literature (Finish-Estonian). Historical Fiction

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. Foreign Literature (India). Historical Fiction

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Non-Fiction

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. American Literature.


Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Burch.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Dystopian Fiction. American Literature.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Fantasy. American Literature.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli. Foreign Literature (Mexico).

After the Music Stiopped by Alan Blinder. Non-Fiction.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. Historical Fiction


Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess. Spy Novel. British Literature.

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra. Foreign Literature (Chile).

Falling Man by Don DelLillo. American Literature


Dictator by Robert Harris, Historical Fiction.

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie, Foreign Literature (Pakistan).

Olivier & Parrot in America by Peter Carey, Historical Fiction.

The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, Foreign Literature (Kuwait/Philipines)


The Blue Between Sky and Water  by Susan Abulhawa, Foreign Literature (Palestinian)

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis, Foreign Literature (Canadian)

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro, Non-Fiction.


The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison, Historical Fiction.

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, Foreign Literature (Turkey).

The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison.

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, Historical Fiction.


The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, Foreign Literature (South Africa).

Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano, Foreign Literature (French).


Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam, Foreign Literature (Pakistan)

The Noise of Time Julian Barnes.

Noonday by Pat Barker, Historical Fiction.

The Collected Short Stories by Dermot Healy, Foreign Literature (Irish)


Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Biography.

The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu, Foreign Literature  (Zimbabwe)




Springtime a Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser, Foreign Literature (Australia)

Distant Light by Antonio Moresco, Foreign Literature (Italy)

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. Foreign Literature (Germany)

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli, Historical Fiction.

Lunatics, Lovers & Poets by -a short story anthology


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

The Whale


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In the New York Times Book Review Zadie Smith revealed that her father gave her a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses before he passed away. He confessed he never read it. In turn, Zadie Smith wrote that she never read Moby Dick. It is not unusual. During a college tour a professor gave a short lecture called “The Whale”. He polled the parents attending, most of whom never read Moby Dick.

In England, Moby Dick was aptly published under the title, “The Whale”. There it was published in three volumes. The work is principally non-fiction. Melville reveals more than you might ever want to know about whale anatomy and the business and culture of whaling from the ancients to the 19th century. At times it is arguably a promotional brochure for whaling.

The story of Moby Dick, is at best, a novella within a much larger work of non-fiction. It was not a popular book at the time of first publication. It was not revered as a masterpiece of American literature until the early part of the 20th century. Taken as a whole I share the earlier view of the book. I lumbered, if not suffered, through it.

I read the edition with an introduction by Clifton Fadiman. It is his viewpoint that the book should not be read as a novel, but as a myth. It is not a story, but a myth of evil and tragedy. To him it is an un-Christian epic; the product of “unfaith.” First published in 1851, Melville imparts abolitionist and perhaps homosexual acceptance through the one or more of the harpoon savages: Queequeg, Tashego and Daggoo.

I do not share Mr. Fadiman’s point of view. Ahab is not inherently evil to me. He is revengeful and as many ship captains, dictatorial, yet fair. He is consumed, as was his Biblical namesake, by being the embodiment of God. His compassion toward Pip’s family and his soliloquy in the chapter “The Symphony”, nonetheless reflect human introspection about his life’s wasted pursuit. In the end he reinforces Ishmael’s fatalist opinion about the voyage that is life. It might be a Calvinistic viewpoint, rather than un-Christian.

Like the Bible the novel is replete with ambiguous symbolism. Is the Leviathan an embodiment of Evil or of God? “Now the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

Have mortals learned the lesson? Melville writes, “That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two-thirds of the fair world it yet covers.” Paradise Lost recognizes the whale as God’s greatest creation: “That sea beast Leviathan, which God of all his works Created hugest that swim the ocean stream.”

There are some who believe that the novel is a reflection of manifest destiny. The contrast between the endless Midwestern prairie and the Pacific Ocean, in the chapter aptly named “The Pacific” might lend scant credence to this, but for me it is not compelling.

The demise of the Pequod, like the Connecticut Pequot indian tribe, in part may have been based on the sinking of the Nantucket whaler, the Essex, by a whale in 1820. Melville drew from historical, scientific and literary resources in compiling this work.

For me Moby Dick would be more readable if the predominant non-fiction elements were exorcised and only the novella remained.

Beasts of No Nation


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I did not see the film, so I cannot compare it with the novel. The book is gripping, particularly because the author had no actual experience with the subject. He is an upper middle class kid who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. where his father was a doctor. He was pre-med and attended Harvard. He researched the subject, but his ability to capture the ambiguity and wickedness of child soldiers in Africa is remarkable.

The prose is imperfect English and repetitive for effect. Each adds to the mood and tempo of the work.

” …all of us to one side just moving moving quickly into the shadow of all the tree and leaf, just stepping on this branch and that rock running running so that whoever it is will not be seeing us and maybe killing us.”

“And then I am thinking of all the thing I am doing. If they are ordering me KILL, I am killing, SHOOT, I am shooting, ENTER WOMAN, I am entering woman and not even saying anything even if I am not liking it. I am killing everybody, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, soldier. It is all the same. It is not mattering who it is, just that they are dying. I am thinking thinking. I am thinking I cannot be doing this anymore.”

Victimizer and victim. Numb, but not amoral. Starving. Looter and predator. Pavlovian by order; by fear. Trained evil. A promising young boy; a believer in God; corrupted, but not beyond redemption. He is changed.Well-meaning relief workers do not grasp his existence.

“She is telling me to speak speak speak and thinking that my not speaking is because I am like baby. If she is thinking I am baby, then I am not speaking because baby is not knowing how to speak. But every time I am sitting with her I am thinking I am like old man and she is like small girl because I am fighting in war and she is not even knowing what war is.”

This is a powerful novel; more so because it was a debut novel. Unfortunately, it is fiction based on a sick reality without end.

My Name is Lucy Barton


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Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year, Elizabeth Strout’s daughter-mother novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, was favorably mentioned in the New York Times’ The Year in Reading by David Sedaris, Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler.

It is a subtly disquieting remembrance of a daughter’s impoverished childhood and unpacking marriage told from her hospital bed in New York City upon a five-day on expected visit from her emotionally mute mother. The characterizations shine as brilliantly as the jewel lights from the Chrysler Building outside her hospital window. The daughter is a budding writer, and this novel is her work. It is partly a tale about writing. She attends a writer’s workshop and sees the author after it.

” I’m sorry I’m so tired,” she said. “jesus, I’m almost dizzy.” She leaned forward, touching my knee lightly before she sat back. “Honestly,” she said softly, “with that last person I thought I was going to be sick. Like really throw-up sick, I’m just not cut out for this.” Then she said, “Listen to me, and listen to me carefully. What you are writing, what you want to write,” and then she leaned forward again and tapped with her finger the piece I had given her, “this is very good and it will be published. Now listen. People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such,  a stupid word, ‘abuse’, such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is a story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she  comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she is doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

This is a story that reflects a period of time. The AIDs crisis is full-blown. Her brother a victim. Young men populate hospital rooms. Fear and ignorance abound. A disease of itself.

“… the disease was new and no one understood how to keep it in abeyance, and so on the door of a hospital room in which a person had this illness would be a yellow sticker. I can remember them still. Yellow stickers with black lines. When I later went to Germany with William I thought of the yellow stickers in the hospital. They did not say ACHTUNG! But they were like that. And I thought of the yellow stars the Nazis made the Jews wear.”

“… I was left in a place where I could see across the hall to a room with that terrible yellow sticker on the partly opened door, and I saw a man with dark eyes and dark hair in the bed, and he was, it seemed to me, staring at me every second…..I tried to look away, to give him privacy, but each time I glanced at him again he was still staring at me. There are times still I think of those dark eyes in the face of the man lying on that bed, peering at me with what in my memory I think of as despair, begging. I have since then– it’s natural as we get older– been with people as they died, and I’ve come to  recognize the eyes that burn, the very last of the body’s light to go out. In a way that man helped me that day. His eyes said: I will not look away. And I was afraid of him, of death, of my mother leaving me. But his eyes never looked away.”

Ms. Strout is keenly observant, but restrained in her prose and description. It is as passive as rolling waves with a rip tide. My sole criticism is that a very short chapter about that reflected 9/11 was distracting, although given the location of a residence it was not contrived.

The author is well-known; a recipient of many literary awards for The Burgess Boys, Olive Kitteridge, Abide with Me, and Amy and Isabelle. I strongly suggest that you read this novel. I aim to read her other works.

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets


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On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare and Cervantes the Hay Festival and the publisher And Other Stories, engaged twelve contemporary international authors to write original, unpublished stories that are inspired by the works of these two writers. Six are English-language writers and six are Spanish-language writers. The former use Cervantes as their muse and the latter, Shakespeare. Salman Rushdie provides the introduction to the anthology.

The end product are irregular. My favorite is Rhidian Brook’s The Anthology Massacre, which parodies this anthology and its authors, including Mr. Brook. While the 12 literary wonders are at the Hay Festival devising their stories for an anthology like this one, a relatively unknown author is about to take the literary world by storm with his 1,837 page retelling of Don Quixote narrated by the horse.

I am fond of Kamila Shamsie’s writing and here she reverts to a common venue for her Cervantes derived story: “In the city of Kolachi there lived the last of the Qissa-Khawans, or Storytellers.” Mir Aslam is the last of the Qissa-Khawans who was trained to tell love stories and desires to travel to Qurtaba, in al-Andalus, the literary heart of Muslim Spain.

The Secret Life of Shakespeareans by Soledad Puértolas though a love story is made tragic by the real life venue for this story: Aleppo. Although this anthology was published in 2016, the life in Aleppo that existed in this story is now fiction.

The flavor of Hamlet’s love, jealousy and tragedy is captured in Marcos Giralt Torrrente’s Opening Windows, which is a play within a play.

The most interesting aspect of this anthology was that it introduced me to writers that I was unaware of. This is likely not their best writing, but all are accomplished and will be worth reading at a later date.


Distant Light


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The Distant Light is a novella that lies in purgatory. Transgressing the boundaries of naturalism and lingering within the spectrum of occultism, it surprises. At first I believed it to be dystopian, but this was belied by ready use of a car and a populated village within a short drive of the isolated homestead of the narrator somewhere in the mountain woods of Italy. He is captivated by a distant light that shows at night from a location across a gorge, that is not easily accessible. Descriptive of the surroundings the first half of this novella is slow to evolve. There are clues that portend its conclusion.

“‘ Why is there all this evil undergrowth,” I wonder, ” that tries to engulf and smoother and suffocate the larger trees? Why all this wretched and desperate cruelty that disfigures everything? Why all this teeming of bodies striving to sap other bodies, sucking them with their thousands and thousands of rampaging roots and their tiny, wild suckers, to siphon off their chemical power, to create new plant forces capable of annihilating everything, of massacring everything. Where can I go where I won’t have to see any more of this slaughter, this blind and relentless torsion they call life?”

While there is an undercurrent of darkness, the distant light is spiritually compassionate, agnostic, and supernaturally more oriental than western derived. A young boy is the source of the light, but I will leave the rest of the story for you to discover.

The author is the recipient of numerous literary awards including for children’s literature. Archipelago books is a publisher of translated literature that is based in Brooklyn, New York.

A fair description of this work was made by Kirkus Reviews, “an unsettling and strangely tender novel.” It is an interesting short read.

A Whole Life


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I was attracted to this short novel by the testimonial of Jim Crace, an author who I hold in high regard. It is an unusual novel. A fictional biography of a simple mountain man who leads an understated life in Germany, before and after World War II. The prose is unembellished, but observant of the natural surroundings encroached by progress.

Andreas Egger’s life was not easy, but the traumatic events are viewed retrospectively with little emotion. An adopted cripple who was not treated kindly lives through the Eastern front and post-war Soviet imprisonment, but these are but time markers. This existence is unremarked only because he chooses not to. He is insular, but for one relationship, and unskilled in that. The meek might not inherit the earth, but they do populate it.

He lives his life on his own terms, but he is not rebellious. He takes life as it comes and survives. His life is complete in the end. He is no different from most of us, which is what makes this novel compelling. Its progression is viewed in a rear-view mirror. A near death capstone.

This was an unexpected captivating read.