Sunday, October 28, 2012

Why I Keep Participating in NaNoWriMo

Greenville NaNoWriMo Write-In, 2009
Except for last November, I have participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every year since moving to South Carolina in 2006.

Not just participated! I have won every year I have participated.  That means in November of 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, I wrote at least 50,000 words.

As a frequent participant in NaNoWriMo, I thought I'd offer my perspective on this popular event.  It might surprise you to learn that I have zero aspirations of being a published novelist.  None.  So why do I do it?

1. Achievement. Blame my status as a first-born child, blame my "Achiever" Enneagram Type, or call me crazy, but I am completely fueled by accomplishment.  Setting goals, meeting those goals, competing, all of these things really drive me.

Some people with this personality type train for marathons.  Maybe some day I'll have the physical ability to do such things, but for now, my brain really enjoys the workout.  I started thinking about this analogy though, and I find it compelling.  I know many people who train to run 5Ks, or half-marathons, or even one crazy co-worker who did a triathlon.  These people, I believe, because of the work they have done and the great things they have achieved, deserve the title of athlete/runner.  How many 13.1 stickers have you seen lately?  Would these same people be able to compete with professional athletes?  In most cases, heck no.  Are they still athletes?  Well, yes.  I'm not really caught up in calling myself a writer - in fact, I don't* - but I can understand why someone who has "won" NaNoWriMo might.

Adrenaline isn't just for extreme sports.  Any time you challenge yourself to do something you normally wouldn't, it can have a great impact on your life.  You have no idea what you can accomplish until you try.  NaNoWriMo is a great test case, with only a 30 day commitment!

2. Community. The first year I participated in NaNoWriMo, I was only active in the online forums and other virtual settings.  The second year, I decided to venture out to some local events.  I found people like me, who love to read, who love to write, and aren't afraid to participate in a crazy, somewhat obsessive and all-consuming event such as this.  I've made good friends because of write-ins.  Some of us even formed a longer running writing group for a while, which was fantastic.

Some of this feeds into my competitive nature too.  I'm just more likely to churn out the word count if I'm given 20 minutes and there is a prize at the end.  We can encourage one another and challenge each other.  Our fearless readers often have ideas for us throughout the month, like emergency plot cards, words you have to try to incorporate, and online word wars.  All of it helps.

3. Appreciation.  Most people know that I am an avid reader.  There is nothing like struggling with writing a cohesive story to make you appreciate a master of the craft.  I have realized how difficult it is to truly be creative, to tie everything together, and to remain "readable."  Because I understand how far I am from greatness, much less readability, I can more specifically articulate what I appreciate in a published work.  I pay more attention to what authors say about their own works as well.  How do they come up with an idea?  What do they do with the idea once they get it?  How do they decide what belongs and what to leave out?  How much time do they spend editing?

My skills aren't there.  I don't devote the time or energy to getting them there.  Even if I did, I'm not sure I have the capacity for originality that I would need.  That's okay though, because for 30 days a year, I can pour myself into the attempt.

If you are contemplating becoming involved in NaNoWriMo, it isn't too late.  A lot of us don't do any planning the first time around, and just jump in and see what happens.  I'd encourage you to try it, or to start planning to do it next year if you want to outline your plot and come up with character profiles.  Find a copy of No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, which is useful before NaNoWriMo starts and a beneficial companion throughout the month.  Join your local group and reap the benefits of writing in community.  Set goals you can achieve, and reward yourself.

*I should say that some people who do plan on getting published also benefit greatly from participating in NaNoWriMo.  I'll allow them to speak for themselves; that just isn't my focus or experience.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (audiobook)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I fear I am heartless.

Some people I respect as readers give this book five stars and I just can't.

Basically, it is about a man taking a walk. Beginning, middle, end. He gets bad news about an old friend and just starts walking, wearing the wrong kind of shoes and without telling bringing his 'mobile.'

Most of the book is about regret and finding his way back to what matters. So, I get that, but it didn't poke through my tough exterior, I guess. You have my permission to call me heartless.

I listened to the audio, which may be partly to blame for the plodding pace to the book. Still, Jim Broadbent was a great reader. I shall have to try to find him reading something else!

This book was on the longlist for the Booker, but didn't make the shortlist. One book that did is also about a walk, but has far more complexity and emotional range. I'd recommend it entirely. (The Lighthouse)

I'm noticing that lately, books about humdrummity are really getting to me. I need some profundity and depth, or lacking that, some interesting characters with interesting lives.

Some of Harold's observations:

"Life was very different when you walked through it."

"Life is made up of people putting one foot in front of the other."

"Nobody's frightening, if you stop and listen."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't get a chance to read this before it won the Orange Prize for 2012, but this year was a remarkable year for fiction written by women in the countries that qualify for that particular list. I would have been happy to see it go to Esi Edugyan or Anne Enright based on reading their nominated novels, and I haven't had chance to read the Harding or Patchett yet. I don't disagree with the decision to award it to this novel, and even better, this is Madeline Miller's first!

In The Iliad, the character of Achilles is devastated by the death of his comrade/friend Patroclus, and Miller explores the history of that emotional response in this novel. She explores the idea of a romantic relationship quite believably, starting with a boyhood friendship after Patronclus is banished from his home.

Hearing it described as so rooted in Greek mythology, you may be turned off from reading this. I know I was. The last time I read The Iliad was in high school, and I worried I would be lost. On the contrary, this was very readable, and I zoomed through it in an afternoon. The author is clearly knowledgeable about the classics, but also manages to make everyone in the story relatable and interesting. I felt myself feeling along with Patronclus as Achilles starts down his path of heroism.

I found a few reviews in GoodReads that come from people more knowledgeable about the original subject matter than me, and I think reading them will bring you understanding the way they did. Thank you Judith and Richard!

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The TwelveThe Twelve by Justin Cronin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn't going to read this book. I wasn't! I felt like The Passage was a well-contained story and I didn't understand where else it could go. I will let the author explain what he focuses on in The Twelve, because I find it too difficult to summarize. (This is from an older post from 2010 on

The next two books each go back to Year Zero at the outset, to reset the story, and to deal with something you didn't see and didn't know was as important as it was. It's not a linear quest story, which I would find dull and plodding. With each book, you need to have the narrative terms reestablished with fresh elements. Also, if you didn't see [a character] die, they're not necessarily dead. There's a big cast in the first book, and plenty of unresolved stuff. I will resolve it by the end. [Early vampire character] Anthony Carter? No, not abandoning him.

In [The Twelve], you go back to what happened in Denver after the outbreak took place. The story will resume in that location a few days after breakout. So you can see another angle on what occurred and certain elements will affect our band of heroes 100 years in the future. It will be called The Twelve - and it's not who you think.

This means that the story starts with where Amy is, and follows up with an assortment of other characters. Just like in The Passage, storylines are dropped completely as others are followed. Since I was listening to the audio, it was a bit more difficult to keep track of, just because it was harder to flip back and get a refresher on names, etc.

The author provides a lot more information about what happened to various people at the very beginning, explaining how some of the communities were formed, the horrific actions of the USA government (including events like "The Field"), and other parts of the novel jump around up to 97 years from when the virus originally took hold. This kind of information is usually my favorite part of post-apocalyptic stories - the rebuilding. What kind of societies form? How do they work? Who has control? I think Justin Cronin shows a lot of creativity and variety in these situations, since it isn't just one story, but multiple. Many of the characters, locations, and situations overlap throughout the story, and I had this sense of the author as a puppeteer, drawing strings of stories around each other. Kudos to him that they never seem to tangle in disaster.

Scott Brick is the narrator for the audiobook of The Twelve, and does a fantastic job. He doesn't bother doing a lot of voices, but his inflection is perfect. He has this ability to get out of the way of the story that I really appreciate when I'm listening. It just comes to life and I'm not constantly thinking of HIM, but of the story.

And The Twelve requires a lot of thinking and paying attention. The multiple story lines, the jumping around in time and history, and the sprinkling of quotations that Cronin throws in kept my attention. He started with a Mark Strand poem, almost as if I needed something to clinch whether or not I'd read this book.

I won't have that dilemma for the final book. While this story has a satisfying climax, I was left with far more questions this time around. I'm not sure I know which side everyone is on. I'm not sure I even know what sides there are, anymore.

I can say that this book is hard to put down, even in audio I found myself making up reasons to listen.  Luckily I had a long trip to Alabama and back that helped me knock out most of it.  I'd recommend reading The Passage first, if you haven't.

A slightly longer review is posted over on SFF Audio, but it really just adds a publisher summary. You can find the author in Twitter.  I thought it was funny that he lives in Houston, considering that there are several comments in the novel about how unlivable the city is.  Ha!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thoughts on the Man Booker Prize 2012

I did it!  For the first year ever, I have read all of the books on the Booker shortlist before the winner was announced.  This is due in large part to an amazing interlibrary loan department where I work.  They even tracked down a copy of Umbrella by Will Self, which doesn't come out in this country until January 2013.  I believe I actually time traveled to read this book.  I had an ARC of one title (the Mantel) from the Orange January/July hostess, bought an eBook of The Lighthouse, and my library had Narcopolis.

First, I'd like to list the novels by what I thought was the best, then second best.  After that I'm going to ruminate on reasons why the judges might choose each novel, and what in each novel might make them turn away.

My personal list of preference:

1. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (read my review)
2. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (read my review)
3. The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (read my review)
4. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (read my review)
5. Umbrella by Will Self (read my review)
6. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (read my review)

Pros and cons for each, and what I think the judges might think:

The Garden of Evening Mists
Pro: Beautifully written, interesting period of history, good story
Con: I've heard it is like a female version of a story he was already nominated for.  I think a lack of freshness could sully the votes.

Pro: Former British Empire (always seems to get them), storytelling technique
Con: Too edgy (I loved the edgy.  Sometimes I want to put this above the Eng.)

The Lighthouse
Pro: Good pacing, good story, heartbreakingly lonely characters.
Con: Pretty short, maybe too simple, and something short and powerful and lonely won last year.

Bring Up the Bodies
Pro: Well told, good pacing
Con: She already won for a book that is the first in the trilogy that this follows in.  This may be a better book but lacks the freshness again.

Pro: Postpostpostpostmodernism and for everything it attempts to do and be.
Con: Practically unreadable.

Swimming Home
Pro: Reads like a play, some great quotes
Con: Somewhat forgettable, not really a standout.

The winner is announced tomorrow, where we will see if the judges think anything close to how I think.  What did YOU think? :)

Umbrella by Will Self

UmbrellaUmbrella by Will Self
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I slogged through this in order to say I had read all of the Booker shortlist before the award was announced, for once. Let's make one thing clear - without that compelling reason, I would not have kept with it.

There is a difference between difficult writing and good writing. I personally thinks Will Self careens toward difficult without giving a thought to the reader. Oh, I'm not just complaining because this is hard to read. I get many of the references and imitations, I just didn't think they were necessary to do all at once. As Self himself said on page 86, "simply wishing the madness away won't make anyone regain their sanity."

First of all, you have the obvious comparison to Ulysses by James Joyce. In fact, just in case you dared to miss the comparison, he starts with a quotation from Ulysses - "A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella." This quotation comes back to haunt the reader towards the end of the story, but I won't ruin that particularly moment for the two other readers who will make it that far.

Ulysses has something very important that Umbrella does not - variety. It morphs between storytelling styles and points of view, with a rise and fall that keeps the reader interested. Umbrella goes FULL SPEED AHEAD with no chapters, no paragraphs (maybe a few indented starts), no dialogue signs, no breaks. Characters have dialogue and internal thoughts in the same breath, and italicized words aren't one or the other but are frequent throughout the book. There are three time periods covered by the novel but you never know where you are. Is an event being remembered or narrated? Are we moving linearly or going back and forth? Who are all these people? Ha.

Also, if this is Ulysses, this is if Ulysses took place in a mental institution in a Cockney accent. Oh yes. Before I forget, a good portion of the spoken words in this novel are Cockney slang. Good luck.

Suddenly, I got to page 138. And a character said "We're'erebecausewe're'ere." All in one word, no spaces, and repeatedly, and I thought, "Where have I heard that before?" I thought it was either Lem or Huxley, and guessed right by rereading my review of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, where one of my favorite bits was people chanting or singing "We're HERE because we're HERE because we're HERE because we're HERE!" Woah. Okay. So a reference to Lem, interesting. So it must be okay that I don't know where I am and nothing makes sense.

I do think it would have been nicer to hide in a bathtub than to force myself to finish.

I took to a deep skim of the rest. If you try to pick out the important bits, you uncover a story that isn't that different from Awakenings, where a psychiatrist treats a patient with Postencephalitic parkinsonism. Audrey Death, the patient, appears throughout the novel in her youth, in her mental hospital self, and everything in between. As far as I can tell the characters DO things but don't feel anything. It is impossible to connect with anyone when you're being bombarded with the songs they have in their head.

I sound impatient. I feel impatient. I read some lovely books this year that were nominated for the Booker. I'm worried the judges will select this one because they don't understand it, because it intimidates them, and therefore it must be good. I hold that this technique itself is not a bad idea, but would be far more interesting in smaller doses.

Up next: I'm going to write a summary post about my Booker reading, and pick my own winner!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a truly incredible book, and is my pick to win the Man Booker Prize this year, and I say that even before reading the last of the six.  Luckily, thanks to the amazing miracle-worker that is our interlibrary loan department where I work, I will travel into the future and read the Will Self book before October 16th, even though it doesn't come out in this country until January.  Stay tuned for a post about all the nominees and how I'd rank them!

Publisher summary: After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp.

The story is told in a dual way with some side trips. Part of the story comes from the time shortly after Yun Ling is no longer a POW, and part of the story comes from the time after she has retired from being a judge and comes back to the garden. She has aphasia and is trying to capture as much of her life as she can before she loses her memory. The author does something really interesting with the storytelling in that she will have a conversation in her present-day life in one chapter where a phrase or person will be mentioned, but as the reader you don't discover the details about the person or phrase until she goes back to tell the story. It isn't done in an obvious way, but in the natural way that stories unfold, where a passing mention of something can recall a memory you didn't even know you have access to anymore.

I learned a lot about Malaya/Malaysia from British and Dutch occupation to World War II to the "Malayan Emergency." The philosophy behind Japanese gardening and the Tao Te Ching both weave their way throughout the novel, and the author seems to embrace the aesthetics of both in his writing as well. While Yun Ling is being taught to slow down, breathe, focus; I felt I was being asked to do that as a reader.

I can't pick out specific examples because this is a novel that should be experienced as a whole.

Since I included music with the Thayil book, I feel compelled to share what I listened to as I read the last 200 pages of this novel tonight.  Emily, the wife of Magnus, the tea estate owner, listens to the same work every night in order to sleep  - the Larghetto from the second Chopin piano concerto, as recorded by Yggdrasil (Quartet).  While I can't find a YouTube video of that particular version/group (they do exist), here is Arthur Rubinstein playing with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn, in 1975. While Chopin isn't the first music I think of when I'm picturing Communists hiding in the jungle, torture camps, and tea plantations, it plays a significant role in the story.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

My Reading LifeMy Reading Life by Pat Conroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a confession to make: I have never seen the movie The Prince of Tides. I have also not read a single novel by Pat Conroy, a southern author who is prevalent in every book store I walk into in my three-state radius.

That is going to change now. After reading his love letter to books, and to the people who led him to those books, I want to see how his reading has been the breeding ground for the books he has produced.

Unfortunately, the book does not have an index of books he discusses, and I'm probably going to work on one, because after you read how they impacted him, you're going to want to read them too. I found a list of "influential writers" on his official website, but I don't feel it is reflective of what is mentioned in the book. You see, it is clear in My Reading Life that he had a horrific encounter with Alice Walker, but one of her books is listed, while James Dickey is not. An entire chapter is devoted to the influence of Dickey on Conroy, and he claims he reads him every damn day. So in protest of that incomplete list, stay tuned.

I'm not usually a fan of flowery, sentimental writing, which Conroy himself admits is his biggest flaw (but one he can't or won't kick). I despise it in descriptions of relationships or nature, but for some reason, on the topic of books and reading, I just can't get enough. I sat and read this book on a single Sunday afternoon, with two cups of coffee. I have slips of paper marking a lot of different bits that I will list below, and I apologize in advance that I find myself responding to this book in a sentimental way.

"[My mother] read so many books that she was famous among the librarians in every town she entered."

"To my mother, a library was a palace of desire masquerading in a wilderness of books."

The entire chapter on Gone With the Wind is spectacular.  I plan to revisit it when I read that book for the first time next year, in the context of my Around the USA reading group.  A perspective from a living southern author will be useful for that reading experience.

"South Carolina is a state of contained, unshared intimacies. It is a state of crosscurrents, passwords, secret handshakes, but it rewards the lifelong curiosity of both natives and strangers alike."

"Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself."

"I let the story possess me, take me prisoner, feed me with the endless abundance of its honeycombed depths." (referring to Tolkien)

"Writers of the world, if you've got a story, I want to hear it. I promise it will follow me to my last breath. My soul will dance with pleasure, and it'll change the quality of all my waking hours. You will hearten me and brace me up for the hard days as they enter my life on the prowl. I reach for a story to save my own life."

"When I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly... TUrn me into something else... Tell me everything I must know. Hold nothing back."

"I believe... that I have not only outread my own generation of writers but outread them in such a way that whole secret libraries separate us."

"I have built a city from the books I've read... I can walk the pleasure-giving streets of that illuminated, sleepless city anytime the compulsion strikes me, day or night." [I would quote Chapter 15 - "The City" in its entirety if I didn't feel that violated the reading experience, oh yeah, and copyright.]

"I have read books to make me savvy and uncommon, and to provide me some moments of sheer divinity where I can approach the interior borderlines of ecstasy itself."

Friday, October 5, 2012

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

This Is How You Lose HerThis Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to the KCRW Bookworm podcast with the author, who also reads the audio.... SO inspiring and smart. Díaz is something special, and I was looking forward to listening to this as an audiobook.

Publisher summary:
On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”

I'd give these stories more of a 4.5, because his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is superb, and it would be hard to surpass it. What I loved about that book is present here, and read in the author's actual voice really brought them to life. Most of them deal with people recently relocated from the Dominican Republic, feeling out of place, and exploring the messier parts of life.

from Nilda
"The newest girl's called Samantha and she's a problem. She's dark and heavy-browed and has a mouth like unswept glass - when you least expect it, she cuts you."

from Alma
"'Baby, baby, this is part of my novel.'
This is how you lose her."

from Flaca
"'It wasn't supposed to get serious between us. I can't see us getting married or nothing.'
And you nodded your head and said you understood. And then, we fucked, so we could pretend that nothing hurtful had just happened."

"Do you remember? When the fights seemed to go on and on, and always ended with us in bed, tearing at each other like maybe that could change everything."

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

The LighthouseThe Lighthouse by Alison Moore
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Another one from the 2012 Booker shortlist....

Publisher summary: 

The Lighthouse begins on a North Sea ferry, on whose blustery outer deck stands Futh, a middle-aged, recently separated man heading to Germany for a restorative walking holiday.

Spending his first night in Hellhaus at a small, family-run hotel, he finds the landlady hospitable but is troubled by an encounter with an inexplicably hostile barman.

In the morning, Futh puts the episode behind him and sets out on his week-long circular walk along the Rhine. As he travels, he contemplates his childhood; a complicated friendship with the son of a lonely neighbour; his parents’ broken marriage and his own. But the story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all others, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find.

He recalls his first trip to Germany with his newly single father. He is mindful of something he neglected to do there, an omission which threatens to have devastating repercussions for him this time around.

At the end of the week, Futh, sunburnt and blistered, comes to the end of his circular walk, returning to what he sees as the sanctuary of the Hellhaus hotel, unaware of the events which have been unfolding there in his absence.

The Lighthouse is a brief novel, following two characters that interact only at the beginning and end. Both live lonely, isolated, unhappy lives; both seem powerless to change anything.

I did enjoy how the book was written. It felt like at least four simultaneous stories were being told - Futh in present day, where he and his wife have separated and he is doing a walking loop in Germany; Futh as a child right as his mother has left; Futh as a young adult, newly married; Ester in the present day, helping her husband Bernard run an inn. Despite everything going on, it was never confusing, and the characters themselves seemed to be reliving the memories during the story, making this was very effective. In some ways this is a book of memory and how bad decisions impact the future, sometimes not even your own bad decisions.

Sigh... poor Futh:
"He could not stop thinking about all the ways in which he had annoyed his wife during their marriage."

There isn't much more I can say without giving away most of the plot. It could have seemed imitative but the characters were written very realistically, albeit hopelessly. I'd consider this a very strong first novel, but I wouldn't expect it to win the Booker (however I'm usually wrong). I'm teetering between three and four stars here, and I think this is worth the read - it only took me an evening to read.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

NarcopolisNarcopolis by Jeet Thayil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher summary:
Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay. In Rashid's opium room the air is thick and potent. A beautiful young woman leans to hold a long-stemmed pipe over a flame, her hair falling across her dark eyes. Around her, men sprawl and mutter in the gloom, each one drifting with his own tide. Here, people say that you introduce only your worst enemy to opium.

Outside, stray dogs lope in packs. Street vendors hustle. Hookers call for custom through the bars of their cages as their pimps slouch in doorways in the half-light. There is an underworld whisper of a new terror: the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, whose victims are the nameless, invisible poor. There are too many of them to count in this broken city.

Narcopolis is a rich, chaotic, hallucinatory dream of a novel that captures the Bombay of the 1970s in all its compelling squalor. With a cast of pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs, it is a journey into a sprawling underworld written in electric and utterly original prose.

When the first chapter was one seven-page sentence, I wasn't sure what I had gotten myself into, exactly. It turns out that was the perfect introduction to the drug-riddled world of this book. The writing was compelling, and I enjoyed the way the world was slowly explored, all centering around one opium den (and later, heroin den), following tangents of seemingly minor characters all leading back to the central place. I never knew where it would head next, and this style allowed for multiple perspectives of Rashid, who owned the place (through his landlord, son, everyone except his wives, which would have been interesting); and Dimple, the eunuch who prepares the pipes (through her older Chinese lover, among others).

The story starts out in the Bombay of the 1970s, and moves all the way up through 2004 with some of the characters. And I suppose if you count Mr. Lee's own story, it also includes the China of his childhood.

The poverty of the setting is well-described, with some commentary such as this:

"Only the rich can afford surprise and/or irony. The rich crave meaning. .. The poor don't ask questions, or they don't ask irrelevant questions. They can't afford to. All they can afford is laughter and ghosts. Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts and rage addicts and poverty addicts and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and tenderness that substances engender." (39)

There is a direct connection between the drug culture and the poverty, made by one of the more unpleasant characters:
"How the fuck are you supposed to live here without drugs?" (211)

Some of the characters have incredible experiences together because of the opium, and there is a very memorable scene between Rashid and Dimple that includes the line:
"Dreams leak." (184)

One of the characters, after trading up the opium addiction for harder and more damaging drugs, ends up in rehab. She explains addiction in a different way:
"There are so many good reasons and nobody mentions them and the main thing nobody mentions is the comfort of it, how good it is to be a slave to something, the regularity and the habit of addiction, the fact that it's an antidote to loneliness, and the way it becomes your family, gives you mother love and protection and keeps you safe.... It isn't the heroin that we're addicted to, it's the drama of the life, the chaos of it, that's the real addiction and we never get over it; and because, when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of the limited options we are offered - why would we choose anything else?" (229)

Another important element in the setting is the conflict between Muslim and Hindu, more importantly how it has an impact on business relationships. There are moments throughout the novel where violence traps the characters inside, although they don't really seem to mind.

A few other tidbits I liked:

This is a taxi driver who has been taking an opera singer around town. I think it gives a good example of the tone and the writing:
"...That's when she tells me to open the sunroof and she starts to sing, and all of the sudden I got it, you know? ... The function of opera, I understood that it was the true expression of grief. I understood why she needed to stand and turn her face up as if she was expressing her sadness to god, who was the author of it. And for a moment I understood what it was to be god, to take someone's life and ash it like a beedi. I thought of her life, her useful life, and I wanted to take it from her for no reason at all." (226)

I also think the author has a sense of humor about his characters, considering that the following quotation (and a much longer reflective passage on doubt and confidence) comes from a man who is in jail, filthy, and high (also possibly a murderer):
"Doubt is another word for self-hate, because if you doubt yourself and your position in the world you open yourself to failure." (232)

When I started writing this review, I had ranked the book at 4 stars, but honestly, I feel like this is well-crafted, I hadn't read anything like it, and I look forward to reading more of his work. It looks like he is otherwise known as a poet.

He is also guitarist, and I listened to STD by Sridhar/Thayil as I read the book.