March 10th, 2015

Dead Dog Cat


A very long time ago, my grandfather, who walked out of Belarus after WWI, asked me to read a book. It was one that had impressed him by how true it felt to him. The book was the first of the Arkady Renko series of detective novels by Martin Cruz Smith called Gorky Park, and it dealt with a Soviet detective trying not only to bring a murderer to justice, but also dealing with the Soviet infrastructure. A very good book.

Years have passed, as has my grandfather, but Smith continued to write books in this series. I haven't gotten back to it in some years, but yesterday I finished reading Havana Bay; Renko was called in because a friend who was assigned to the Russian Embassy in reference to sugar purchases is missing. Smith sets the scene very entertainly, and much of the tale relates to Cuban folkways. I found it very enjoyable, and I don't intend to wait so long until I pick up another of these books to read!

Books #11-12

Book #11 was "Gilgamesh: A New English Version" by Stephen Mitchell. I picked this up because I'm going back and reading some of the classics I haven't yet gotten to, and this was the oldest one on my list (circa 2100 BC). I'd read bits of the Gilgamesh myth and knew about his friend Enkidu, but I hadn't read the epic poem all the way through. I'd read that this version by Stephen Mitchell was "sexier" than other translations - he skips the euphemisms in the sexual scenes and goes for a more direct translation. That is certainly true about the book, but there's plenty to love about it. Mitchell calls it a "version" rather than a "translation" because he doesn't translate directly from the old Sumerian/Akkadian but rather pieces together bits from previous translations, omits repetitive passages, moves some sentences around and inserts guesses at the text where it is fragmentary (something earlier translators did to some extent as well). The book itself is a really beautiful artifact, well made with illustrative flourishes. The poem only takes up a little over 100 pages, but there's an extensive introduction and extensive footnotes. The introduction helps put the poem in context, and Mitchell explains how the fragmentary epic in cunieform was discovered and interpreted, as well as explaining why he made some of the decisions he did when creating his version. He also provides commentary on the themes in the book, and how it both fits and deviates from the typical Hero's Quest. This version is highly, highly readable and entertaining and I recommend it.

Book #12 was "Back When We Were Grownups" by Anne Tyler. I picked this up at a local "Free Library" exchange, and I didn't really have high hopes for it. The set-up feels a little bit like a Lifetime movie, in that the main character, Rebecca, has a colorful blended stepfamily full of quirky characters. However, I got sucked into it quickly and enjoyed it thoroughly. Rebecca wakes up one day when she is 53 and wonders how she ended up in the life she's living, and begins to imagine all the ways her life could have gone differently. She goes back to her hometown to see her mother and talk to an old beau, and begins day-dreaming of another life she could have lived. In the meantime, her extended brood goes through its own dramas, including a new baby, an engagement, and plans for a 100th birthday party for the great uncle of the family. It's hard to explain exactly what is so captivating about the book except that Rebecca's crisis & revelation will feel familar and real to anyone in their 40s, 50s or beyond who feels sometimes they ended up in "the wrong life." I really liked this book a great deal - what a fun surprise.

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