Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Audio)

It may seem redundant to post a review after taking part in The Readers Summer Book Club discussion of Half-Blood Blues, but I decided to do just that.  Mainly to share my *spoiler free* thoughts on Esi Edugyan’s novel with readers who still haven’t read the book and needed a bit of a nudge.   If you enjoy history and are looking for a good beach read – one with more depth than your average Summer paperback –  then this is probably the novel for you.

Half-Blood Blues initially interested me because of the setting and subject matter.  It’s a Jazz novel set in 1940’s Berlin & Paris. Sid, the narrator of Half-Blood Blues was the bass player for the jazz band The Hot-Time Swingers.  A combo made up of Americans and Germans, they took Berlin by storm in the 30’s.  Sid and his best friend Chip – a drummer who will later rise to stardom as one of the foremost jazz musicians of his generation – have been playing music together since their shared childhood in Baltimore.  Their relationship is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel.  While neither man is a saint, their commitment to each other and longtime friendship puts a likeable polish on both characters. (I’d go so far to say that the most sympathetic component of each man is his relationship with the other).

When the book opens Chip, now in his 80’s, is trying to convince Sid to attend a festival celebrating their late friend and band mate Hieronymus ‘Hero’ Falk.  Falk was a gifted, Afro-German trumpet player whose reputation (in the vein of  Robert Johnson’s) rests on just a few recordings.  Both Chip & Sid were interviewed for a documentary on Falk’s life.  Both men were a part of the legendary recording of Half-Blood Blues, a disc which only survived because Sid snuck it out of their recording session before it was destroyed. Both men escaped Hitler’s Berlin and Nazi occupied Paris, while Hero did not.  Sid develops into a tragic character who may or may not have committed a despicable act and then compounded it with a terrible lie.  Chip stays reassuringly consistent throughout, a boy who Sid’s mother once described as having “no light” in his eyes.

Edugyan alternates timelines – jumping forward to Sid & Chip’s modern day pilgrimage to Berlin for the festival and then back to the events of 1940.  Sid narrates, by turns brutally honest and suspiciously unreliable. His story is full of red herrings, shocking reveals, suspense, betrayal, nail-digging-ly slow pacing and one of the most beautifully written endings I’ve ever encountered.  It’s written in a voice laden with slang and Southern dialectic tics that reminded me of the work of Zora Neale Hurston.  On almost all levels Half-Blood Blues is an engaging and satisfying Summer read – falling somewhere between the categories of literary and genre fiction.

It’s not without its flaws.  Among the disappointments of this Booker nominated novel is  Edugyan’s decisions regarding how far to take the historical component.  To my mind not far enough.  The Hot-Time Swingers consisted of an Aryan German, a Jewish piano player, the African-Americans Chip and Sid (we’re told Sid could ‘pass’ for white & Chip could not) and Hero – an Afro German.   Keep in mind that the jazz scene in Berlin and Paris was HUGE prior to the Nazi crackdown (Check out the album Hot Club de France which collects some of the best recordings of that period).  The band’s manager is a member of the German elite, from a family of Fascists, a young man who turned his back on his family’s values and sacrificed everything for the love of jazz.  While their stories are here to greater and lesser extent, the sense of time and place wasn’t strong enough for me.  I never felt immersed in either city – Berlin or Paris.  Other critics have expressed that they’d like to have seen the history of Afro Germans more fully explored.  I agree.  The reasons I believe readers come to this novel – the history & the music – take a back seat in the book’s middle where Edugyan focuses on a strange and frustratingly juvenile love triangle which develops between Sid, Hero and a woman named Delilah (Louis Armstrong’s protegé and singer).

While I enjoyed Esi Edugyan writing, I’m not as enthusiastic about her plotting.  Without revealing spoilers I’ll just say that the two pivotal plot points – the ones on which the entire novel’s motivations are based – are inauthentic.  They don’t make sense.  It was as if they were inserted as a matter of convenience.  As a means for the writer to get to where she wanted to go, rather than carefully placed components of a well thought out narrative.  As I’ve already said:  I still enjoyed Half-Blood Blues and would recommend it for an entertaining Summer read.  But it fell short of the expectations I have for a novel that’s been shortlisted for an award as prestigious as the Man Booker (regardless how quirky the year’s list).

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (2012)
Time:  11 hours, 12 minutes

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The Review: Book-ish News You May Have Missed

Reading can be a solitary habit and I’m in an interactive kind of mood today.  With that in mind –  here’s a set of links to things that require some giving & receiving.  Enjoy!

    • The Readers Podcast, hosted by the UK litbloggers Savidge Reads and GavReads, is compiling a long list for The International Readers Book Awards 2011.  Due to some technical difficulties with the website they’ve decided to extend the deadline until Tuesday, December 20th.  ANYONE IN THE WORLD can nominate a book (that’s been published in 2011 in hardback or paperback format) and there are multiple categories to choose from.   Including:  Best Character, Best Opening Line, Best First Novel and, of course, Best Book of the Year.  Follow the link to fill out the longlisted nomination form.  And I strongly encourage you to download an episode of The Readers while you’re there (they’re on iTunes as well).
    • Kimbofo of Reading Matters has designated January 2012  Australian Literature Month – complete with a challenge.  The rules are simple:  read an Australian book and celebrate the writers from the land down under (and NO!  New Zealand books do NOT count!  I’m still blushing over that faux pas).  If you blog – not a requirement – Kim has created a set of 5 badges to use in your posts.  Each one features a different Australian native animal.  And, finally, if you’re unsure what to read I recommend visiting Lisa at ANZ Litlovers.  I guarantee she’ll set you on the right track.
    • Closet political junkie?  Levi Asher over at Litkicks has been hosting an ongoing discussion about the Occupy and Tea Party Movements.  Whichever side of the debate you fall on – or if you find yourself performing a balancing act on razor-wire between the two – you’ll be welcomed.  Your opinions (as long as you keep it polite) will be heard.  And let’s be honest. That’s more than most of us got over Thanksgiving dinner with family.
    • Speaking of politics:  it seems that there’s a new Republican front-runner!  Lori at TNBBC is hosting a giveaway of TAFT 2012, a novel by Jason Heller published by Quirk Books.  Follow the link to learn about the book, view the trailer and to enter to win the fantastic prize pack that includes a campaign pin and poster!  (I’m such a geek).  5 winners, U.S. residents only and the opportunity to join a group discussion with the author on GoodReads in January.  All entries need to be in by December 21st.
    • If we’re handing out points for creativity:  Quirk seems to be ahead of the curve in keeping print books relevant in the wake of the e-book revolution.  How do they do it?  By making the physical object as unique and desirable as the text it contains.  Case in point:  their upcoming January release The Thorn And the Blossom:  A Two-Sided Love Story by Theodora Goss.

This novel is beautifully illustrated, comes with a slipcover and without a spine.  It’s what is known as an accordion book.  In Goss’ incarnation each side opens up to the same story told from a different perspective, each perspective containing new revelations.  (A shame this wasn’t out in time for the holiday because it would make the perfect stocking stuffer).  Watch this space for my upcoming review.

    • And last, but not least, check out this tweet from last week:

https://twitter.com/#!/BookedinChico/status/147484567438245889

Are you as excited about a new Toni Morrison book as I am???

Please feel free to use the comments to post any contests, challenges, awards and exchanges that you’re hosting, taking part in or just geeking-out on.  ‘Tis the season for sharing!

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Monkey Business (new writing from japan) – volume 01 / 2011

If you know me, then you probably know of my obsession with podcasts.  The latest and greatest being the Three Percent Podcast, hosted by Chad Post from Open Letter Books and Tom Roberge from New Directions.  I couldn’t give you a reason why I like listening to these guys – other than the great recommendations for translated lit and their knowledge of random (and frightening) facts:  such as the Power Rangers have been around for at least 13 seasons (actually 19).   Chad’s baseball enthusiasm cracks me up, Tom comes off as a bit of a misanthrope which I find even funnier.  Together they’re just a great team. I encourage you to listen to them.

One excellent recommendation they made was the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business.  The title comes from an old Chuck Berry song.  It’s an editorial collaboration between Motoyuki Shibata (editor of the Japanese edition) and Ted Goossen (who translates of 9 of the 14 stories collected in Volume 01).  You can purchase a copy through A Public Space ‘s website.

I think for most readers the immediate draw will be a 2008 interview with Haruki Murakami, conducted by the Japanese novelist Hideo Furukawa.  But the short stories, poetry and haikus – many involving monkeys – will hook the adventurous reader.  These Japanese authors are incredibly visceral, both in their subject matter and descriptions.  Squeamish beware!  Some of the plots border on the bizarre.  Monsters, deformities, mythology and horror are all par for the course.

What I enjoyed most was style in which the stories are told, which is entirely different from anything I’m used to.  They made me think in new ways (if that makes sense?).  I imagine repeat readings will uncover ideas and points I’d missed the first go around.

As I said, Volume 1 is still available.  Volume 2 (I believe) will be out Spring, 2012.  If you’re looking for an overview of or a quick introduction to Japanese literature… or just something out of the norm… Monkey Business is a good place to start.

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Weekly Geeks: Did Somebody Say “Podcast”?

I haven’t participated in a Weekly Geeks for a while – but I couldn’t resist this week’s entitled “Podcasts Anyone?”

My original list of favorite podcasts went up back in April – but since then I’ve discovered a few more to share.  Because, I’ll say it again, the next best thing to reading books is reading about books.  And when that isn’t an option…

The Guardian Books Podcast (with Claire Armitstead) –  This weekly podcast provides an overview of what’s going on in the world of books, authors, literary prizes and festivals on the other side of the pond.  It’s a showcase of all things literary out of the UK and I became completely hooked thanks to their series on the 2009 Hay Festival (a yearly literary festival held at Hay-on-Wye in England).  Festivals aren’t your thing?  The author interviews and book discussions are also well done, informative and entertaining.  The podcasts provides a nice heads up on books yet to be published Stateside.  But there is a dark side…  How so? you ask.  Well, lets just say I’ve discovered first hand the strength of the dollar on amazon.uk.

Start the Week with Andrew Marr –While not ostensibly about books, Marr hosts men and women with different areas expertise – often authors, musicians, filmmakers and other artsy types – in a roundtable discussion.  It’s a lot like finding yourself at a fabulous cocktail party full of interesting people.  There’s no theme and appears to be no logic as to who is chosen for a particular show.  (Case in point, the programme information from this week reads: “Tom Sutcliffe discusses tradition and modernity with musician Nitin Sawhney, drama and wartime plots with writer and director Stephen Poliakoff, progress and conservation with the science historian Harriet Ritvo, and the uses and abuses of scientific ideas with Dennis Sewell”).    Your best course of action, at the party and with the podcast, is to nod knowingly and attempt to laugh at appropriate times.   Added bonus of the podcast:  no need to try to keep up with the witty repertoire.

Book Reviews with Simon Mayo – The Brits  take their reading seriously.  My current fave,  Book Reviews with Simon Mayo features two authors, their books, 3 critics and Simon (or is it 2 critics and Simon?… dam accent).  Everyone, including the authors, have taken the time to read both books and are expected to weigh in with their opinions.  The discussion is in-depth (down to the cover art).  Even better: no one pulls their punches.  That means not all books get a positive review.   But the tone is civil and the critique usually spot on.  These are people who love books and are having a good time discussing what they’ve read.  Rather than attempting to impress each other with their literary prowess.

The Moth PodcastThe Moth is an open mike where people tell true stories, without notes, in front of a live audience.  That’s the intro to the podcast. (Yes, I memorized it. No, I don’t have a life).  If you only have time to download one podcast after reading this post – this is the one.  The stories  range from incredibly funny (the American editor of French Vogue’s haunted apartment in Paris), to harrowing (a girl in her 20’s capture and escape from Congolese rebels), to a combination of the two.  The Moth is proof positive, week after week, that you can’t make this stuff up.

The New York Review of Books (NYRB) –This seems to have become a BBC scewed list.  Thank goodness for my NYRB!  Not to be confused with The New York Times Book Review, the NYRB is a monthly-ish journal that features reviews of fiction & non-fiction titles, as well as articles on current events that may not have made it to prime time.   The podcast ties into the current issue  and provides an in-depth discussion of a single article featured in the print copy.  This is not a re-hashing of the actual article, but a companion piece that often takes the form of an interview with the author.  Listen to the NYRB and if you ever do get invited to that cocktail party at Andrew Marr’s you might have something to add to the conversation.

The Magic of Podcasts (Redux)

The next best thing to reading a book is reading about books. Fact. But let’s face it: there are only so many hours in the day. Thankfully there are the Podcasts. (Seriously, what is sexier than an Ipod?) I subscribe to a few different ones on a variety of topics. Below are a few of my favorite literary podcasts. Needless to say (we are in a recession) they’re all free to download.

The Penguin Podcast – Beware! There are both British & American versions. My personal favorite is the British and it’s not just because of the nifty accent. Its has been a great source for new books and authors that haven’t yet made the leap across the pond. Luckily, even we Yanks can order from AmazonUK. All the books featured are published by Penguin (and eventually its American affiliates). Additional value comes from good quality production, entertaining readings by the authors and rather catchy music mixes featuring quotes from books in the Penguin library. Average time: 15 minutes per episode, with new episodes about 1-2 times a month (though lately they seem to be updating less).

Slate Audio Book club – Young, terminally hip and bordering on unacceptably smug… this podcast conforms to the Slate brand identity. The NYC group of three usually discusses a book that falls squarely into the critically acclaimed bestseller category. (Lately they’ve been reading a lot of recently deceased authors such as Updike and Wallace). Keep in mind that this is a discussion group, not a reading and not a review, so major plot points are revealed. There’s the added frustration of listening to people express opinions you don’t agree with and can’t respond to. On the plus side, it’s always informative, and a great resource for current fiction and non-fiction. Each episode lasts 1 hour.

World Book Club (The BBC) – I love the BBC (that accent again). This podcast features author interviews done in front of a live audience – doing a quick question and answer with the host and then taking audience, call in and emailed questions from readers. The authors featured are always at the top of their game. Toni Morrison, David Guterson, Iain Banks, Armistead Maupin and Michael Ondaatje are some examples. Overall the podcast is very entertaining, informative, with the added bonus of hearing the audiences’ responses, laughter and applause. Each episode lasts approximately 1 hour.

KCRW Bookworm – This is National Public Radio – kickin’ it OLD SCHOOL! Here is your chance to experience the classic author interview, done by an erudite NPR host. Expect obscure questions and inferences into the text that even the author has trouble following. Marvel at the strange emotional intonations and inappropriate pauses for emphasis as the interviewer goes on lengthy tangents that no one understands. And always expect to be faced with the age old question – who is REALLY the expert on this book? – The author or the NPR host/critic? Bookworm is a weekly radio program (more of an institution) out of California, so scheduling is consistent, shows 1 hour in length, and features a steady stream of relevant & established contemporary authors.

Short Stories (for those awful and unfortunate times when you can’t read):

The New Yorker: Fiction – The podcast features short stories from the archives of the New Yorker. The stories are guaranteed to be well written and well read. The stories are selected and read by a contemporary figure (writers, actors) – and always feature an insightful (or at least interesting) interview as to why the story was chosen. Each episode averages about a ½ hour, and they come out monthly. These are great on headset for doing chores, running errands, walking the dog or commuting to work.

PRI: Selected Shorts – Fabulous reading from members of the American Theater at the NY Symphony Space (broadcast by NY Public Radio). Each episode lasts about 1 hour and consists of a variety of short readings. One program I listened to included a short story by Kate Chopin, Mark Twain, a fairy tale and readings from Capote letters. The readers are equally as impressive, featuring the likes of John Lithgow (my personal favorite). Recommend listening while making dinner.