What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Summer Novella Mania!

 I'm beginning to suspect that I'll have to place pre-orders for the entire catalog of Europa Editions... Up until now, I've not had a single disappointing experience reading one of the books that they mostly cherry-pick from works published abroad to translate and introduce to a North American readership. Most folks who have encountered their books so far probably did so via The Elegance of the Hedgehog or perhaps another French-language novel that made a lesser splash late last year, A Novel Bookshop. I became a die-hard fan after reading Rondo this spring, and have just finished reading two novellas that I loved and that would make great summer reading -- just meaty enough to make you feel that you have been thinking as well as reading, beautifully written and translated, and featuring a range of fascinating characters.

The first of these is The Shadow of What We Were by the exiled Chilean writer, Luis Sepulveda. In a deftly-written 132 pages, the author has imagined what might happen if some of his fellow political exiles, on their return to Chile, had decided on one last political "action" as a tribute to their radical past and with the assistance of a man known to them as "The Shadow", a veteran anarchist. (Hence the title: the men are "fatter, older, bald or with greying beards" who "still cast the shadow of what they were."

The Shadow has his own agenda, but on his way to meet them falls victim to a bizarre and darkly funny accident. Enter another returned exile, a former Maoist who now spends his days immersing himself in the Hollywood fantasyland of cinematic triumphs like 'Reservoir Dogs'. He decides to go to the rendezvous in place of "The Shadow"... I adored this small gem of a book. Yes, it assumes a bit of knowledge of Chilean politics, but without knowing much more than the bare bones of the fact of the Pinochet coup (gleaned from "Missing", the Costa Gavras film) I was able to follow the narrative quite comfortably. And the author has an incredible eye for the telling detail -- from a character's purchase of "diet chickens" for his fellow aging revolutionaries, we learn of his aversion to poultry -- and later the darkly funny reason for it. We get to follow an equally aging police inspector and his young colleague as they try to solve the mystery of "The Shadow's" fate. There are poignant moments -- such as the ex-Maoist's wife, who clings to her memories of life in exile in Berlin to comfort her back in Santiago (quite a reversal!) -- and moments of almost Chaplinesque hilarity. A beautifully written book addressing complex subjects simply and elegantly; in a fabulous translation. 4.6 stars.

French Leave by Anna Gavalda is less complex and much, much more accessible. Although dealing with a similar kind of reunion among four people, its characters are siblings drawn together by family history and experience, not political activism. And the story is a domestic and social one, revolving around a single weekend in which Garance (the narrator), her elder brother Simon and sister Lola, are supposed to be attending a family wedding along with Simon's rather oppressive wife, who frets about such things as the proper attire, not spoiling the leather of the car seats and other such stuff that Garance considers bizarre and unwarranted. Almost at the church door, the siblings bolt for the chateau where their brother Vincent is working for the summer. Again, it's a story that focuses on rebuilding and rediscovering the ties that behind; although not much happens beyond talk, the reader is aware that the real action is behind the scenes -- the reinforcement of the kind of emotional bonds between them that, when the book ends, will allow each to return to his or her own life with its rewards and challenges. It deals with the role that nostalgia can play in our lives as we approach the age when we realize life will never live up to our childhood dreams of what it can become, and how sometimes we need to cut loose from ugly realities, if only for a few hours. 3.9 stars, also recommended, although it's not going to be as memorable a book for me as Sepulveda's, I suspect.

These were the first books I've read by both authors, although I'm certainly going to be seeking out more that they have written. And after reading these novellas, I'm going to move on shortly to You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik. I got a review copy of this from the Europa folks at BookExpo in late May; it's one of the first titles that will be rolling off their presses in a new series of books by newish North American authors, a series edited by Alice Sebold (of The Lovely Bones fame). Here's hoping the lucky streak holds...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Perils of a Literary "Hommage"

I have to confess that I've got a longish list of pet peeves when it comes to books. I don't read formula romance; remain uninspired by most science fiction and fantasy, and as for the current obsession with werewolves, zombies, vampires and other such critters, fugheddaboutit. I don't like memoirs that read as if the author has just left the set of Oprah Winfrey's show after discussing their blighted childhood -- if that's all that's in a memoir, I'm unimpressed. And oh yeah, I'm not a fan of the literary "hommage". You know, what happened to Scarlett O'Hara after she reminded herself that tomorrow would be another day, or the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice; still less the "let's take that Austen plot and turn it into a modern day story!" phenomenon, or the efforts to have Jane Austen combat zombies alongside Queen Victoria, etc. etc.

But something seems to have changed lately. I greatly enjoyed Lev Grossman's The Magicians and am eagerly waiting to see if NetGalleys will approve my request to read the sequel. On my giant TBR stack sits not only The Meowmorphosis (you've got it -- the nouveau version of Gregor Samsa turns into a cat rather than a giant roach-like insect) but also two of Elizabeth Aston's Pride and Prejudice sequels. (I confess I acquired the latter from the library on learning that the author also wrote the witty and constantly-reread-by-me Mountjoy series of novels -- I suggest starting with Children of Chance.) And then came Daphne, the novel by Justine Picardie that I picked up during my last trip to Fowey, the town near which Daphne du Maurier lived much of her life and where she wrote most of her novels and set many of them (including Rebecca.)

I love many of du Maurier's novels, and I love Fowey (in fact, for more than 20 years I've dreamed of taking over and running the second-hand bookstore there, Bookends of Fowey). After all, why would any rational person not love a place where a short walk along the clifftops brings you to somewhere like Lantic Bay? (see the pic above) Then I read a rather dreadful and un-finishable mystery featuring du Maurier as a sleuth and couldn't bear to read Daphne in case it was another dud. Happily, I can report (now that I forced myself to put those fears aide) that far from being a dud, it's an above-average novel and a great "hommage" to du Maurier.

The book weaves together three separate stories, each revolving around a character facing a crisis in their life. Two are in the past, and feature real people, du Maurier and Bronte scholar J. Alexander Symington; the third is a contemporary young woman struggling with an ill-advised marriage and too fascinated with the middlebrow du Maurier to focus on her plans to write a PhD thesis about the Brontes. All three characters must confront their demons -- Daphne, her troubled marriage and her pain at being critically shunned even as her books become bestsellers; Symington, his past misdeeds as curator of Bronte collections and Daphne's demands on his expertise as she struggles to complete the biography that will become known as The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte and the contemporary first-person narrator's bid for some kind of independence and connection with the broader world. Picardie has managed to capture a bit of what makes du Maurier's novels so atmospheric -- her 21st century narrator is an unnamed character who, like the second Mrs. deWinter, must live in the shadow of a previous spouse about whom her husband will say nothing, leading the new bride to make her own uncomfortable discoveries. Meanwhile, the young woman becomes hypnotized by the past, yearning
"to slip into an old photograph or between the printed lines of a page; to become a  bystander in the past, to see it as it really was rather than as it has been seen in retrospect.”

This isn't a brilliant novel, but as a fan of du Maurier's, I found it great reading. Anyone who has read Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel will nod in recognition at various points throughout the book; anyone who knows the country around Fowey will share Daphne's pain (in Picardie's prose) when she finds herself taking the train up to London from the station at Par. “She knew the journey so well, but dreaded it in this direction, even her favourite part of it," Picardie writes, "when the railway line snaked along the edge of the Devon coastline, seeming to hover almost above the waves.” The fact that Picardie can conjure up the precise feeling that I've had so many times in the past (and shares my precise favorite spot in the rail trip, near Dawlish) helped make this book a 4.2 star read for me. Recommended as a great summer novel: just demanding enough to make you feel smart, without forcing you to try to extract Great Meaningful Ideas from the prose.

For those who haven't yet ventured beyond Rebecca in du Maurier's own oeuvre, here are some suggestions. (And yes, I promise to review The Meowmorphosis!)
  • The King's General: Set the in the English Civil War, a very different kind of love story with an irascible heroine and a hero with issues of his own.
  • The House on the Strand: An early book that I read featuring time travel, set all around the vicinity of Fowey and featuring trips back to the late Middle Ages.
  • The Scapegoat: One of those great stories about doppelgangers and imposters, set in the French countryside. In fact, I may re-read it this summer!
  • Vanishing Cornwall: Combines pictures with stories about the countryside that du Maurier loved so much.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Epic Saga of an Epic Life

If you happen to be a historical fiction fan, and admirer of Margaret George's chunkster novels, by the time you add this 688-page monster to your collection you'll need to add a new shelf to accommodate them all...

But onto the book's contents, which, after all, is what this blog is about. Except that in this case, the length of this novel, which covers the final years of Elizabeth Tudor's reign (from the Spanish Armada to her death in 1603) is one of the issues in the content: it seems as if Margaret George has never had anyone tell her, look, you're in danger of repeating yourself here. Because while this is an often-fascinating and always well-researched novel about Tudor England, it seems that there isn't an event that it doesn't cover. That's why I read biographies, but not the reason I turn to historical fiction, which I expect to be a distillation of themes and ideas, not an encyclopaedia.

What does work in this book is the alternating points of view between Elizabeth and her cousin and rival, long-banished Lettice Knollys. Lettice dared to marry Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and possibly the only man Elizabeth ever loved; she was the mother of another of Elizabeth's favorites, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, who the queen later executed for treason. So alternating between the bitter and ambitious Lettice and the determined and resourceful queen is a clever approach, giving the reader two different and equally biased perspectives on events. For instance, when Elizabeth decides to ban all later portraits of herself from public view, she is removing unflattering portraits that might cause her enemies to try to take advantage of what they believe to be her weakness. To Lettice, the action is vanity, pure and simple. I found the episodes narrated by Lettice to be the most appealing and intriguing: she dallies with William Shakespeare, and her adventures are the author's way of showing us what some Elizabethans believed to be messages about contemporary affairs hidden within Shakespearean plays such as Richard II. Reading Elizabeth's point of view was more tedious, as it seemed to revolve around the same handful of concerns: containing the Spanish; reining in Essex's hubris; grieving as old counselors and friends die.

It took a few weeks for me to finish reading a book that I might have read cover to cover in only a few days for just this kind of reason; after a couple of chapters, I felt as if I was simply plodding through the pages. Whereas in her books about Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scots I didn't find the length any obstacle to my enjoyment, here it was definitely an impediment. George could have easily trimmed 200 pages from this book and, with some careful editing, have produced a book that kept all the essential ingredients and that was a more lively and focused narrative. As it stands, it's merely good -- a 3.8 star book that will probably only be read by historical fiction devotees. Certainly, no one else is likely to have the patience to make it to the end! Only mildly recommended, and only to historical fiction fans. It's certainly authoritative, but while it could end up being a kind of bookend to Margaret Irwin's trilogy (beginning with Young Bess, these books focus on Elizabeth's life leading up to her accession), it wasn't as enjoyable a book to read.

A Highly Idiosyncratic Summer Reading List

Everyone seems to be doing it. By "it", I mean, of course, that everyone is out there eagerly crafting their lists of books recommended for summer reading. And no, it's not just the blogosphere: JP Morgan's private bankers have their own list for their uber-wealthy clients (featuring Caroline Kennedy's poetry collection -- meh -- and Stacey Schiff's excellent biography of Cleopatra) and so does retail chain Anthropologie (they're pushing Swamplandia, which I admit I found over-hyped -- but more of that in another post.)

So, even though I can hear my grandmother's voice ringing in my ear -- "If (insert name of friend here) jumped off a bridge, would you just jump off right after them??" -- I'll join the parade. But I'm not going to focus on books with lotsa buzz, or even necessarily on new releases. I'll just pick a few books that are close to the top of my mind, some of which I read last month; others I may have read for the first time as a teenager. The only thing they have in common is that they all stick in the mind in some way: they are books that don't demand a heck of a lot of bandwidth to read (and who wants to think too hard about what they are reading when the mercury creeps toward 90 F?) but that will grab and hold your attention.

  1. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. The first of four mystery novels featuring Jackson Brodie that I read this year; I'm now waiting eagerly for the British DVD series to arrive. Brodie is a cynical private detective who finds himself caught up in a few related mysteries. Excellent.
  2. Strawberry Fields by Marina Lewycka: I know this isn't the novel for which the author is best known, but I relished this story of the misadventures of a motley bunch of migrant workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, working in the fields and factories of England. Fab.
  3. Objects of Our Affection by Lisa Tracy: An overlooked gem of a book; the story of how one woman comes to understand her family's history as she finally forces herself to clear out the possessions accumulated by her ancestors. How people intersect with history.
  4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: If you haven't read this popular classic yet, shame on you! How can anyone not want to solve the mystery of the first Mrs. de Winter? And you'll never meet a creepier character than Mrs. Danvers. I first read this in the hot summer of 1976.
  5. Sister by Rosamund Lupton: A new book that reminded me of Rebecca in its eerie tone and plot. A woman flies home to London when her sister vanishes; the story has one of the best twists imaginable in its final pages.
  6. Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino. Excellent narrative of the corruption at the heart of the antiquities trade, and how that jeopardized the fate of America's richest museum. One of the best art world books I've read yet.
  7. Blood River by Tim Butcher: So you think you're hot? Read this travel saga by a journalist dumb enough to try to follow in the footsteps of Henry Stanley (of "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" fame) through the Congo and you'll know what hot and sticky is really like!
  8. Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker: If Peter Mayles were better at writing novels, this is the kind of book he'd produce. Best of all, the author doesn't pander to nostalgia -- the crimes Bruno confronts are very 21st century. One of my faves from last year.
  9. The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill: The first book in a series featuring Laos's only coroner in 1975 -- he also just happens to be the reincarnation of a spirit. Cotterill has a deft hand when crafting eccentric characters and gripping plots.
  10. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: The classic first volume of what Fermor planned to be a trilogy about his 1930s trip on foot from Holland to Constantinople. After Fermor's recent death, we're waiting to see if volume 3 will make it into print...
  11. China Court by Rumer Godden: The most overlooked among my favorites by this author (others include The Greengage Summer). It's a different kind of tale, but I love the way she blends generations and stories.
  12. A Place of Execution by Val McDermid: I watched the televised version of this, and then went back to read the book to remind myself how truly, deeply chilling this suspense story is. Best of all, McDermid pulls it off with a low body count. The suspense is all in the characters & story.
  13. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: Laugh, chortle, rejoice -- the author has pulled off something wonderful in this little novella about the impact that discovering books has on the Queen of England.
  14. Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe: On a more sober note, a young Burmese from the tribal lands discovers English literature -- and then decides to flee his country to study in England. A few years old now, but a wonderful story. 
  15. Defining the World by Henry Hitchings: The story of how Dr. Johnson came up with his dictionary -- an imaginative format, a narrative characterized by wit and insight; scholarly but not at all oppressive.
As for the books that I'll be spending my summer reading, well, you'll have to wait and see: I'll be posting that list on July 4!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Book that Dare Not Speak Its Name

I admit that reading this book in public could prove dangerous to your health, at least based on my experience on the New York city subway system returning home from BookExpo, where I obtained a review copy of this slim volume from its publishers. Glimpsing the title as I skimmed the first few pages, a woman sitting across from me began haranguing me about violence being the problem that makes the city unlivable, and that any book suggesting that we flog our children is just going to make matters worse... I gather that I'm not alone, as at least two other people have reported similarly hostile reactions.

Well, to put matters straight, this book isn't about flogging children. Nor does it have anything at all to do with sexual deviancy (in case anyone is hoping that it does.) Rather, the author -- a former cop and now a professor -- crafted his opus as a semi-serious way to draw attention to his real concern: the fact that not only do prisons not work and cost us a tremendous amount of money, they actually damage society by rendering inmates (most of whom will eventually be released) insane, unemployable and criminal for life. Why, not he suggests (somewhat tongue in cheek) offer convicted people bound for prison the option to exchange their prison sentence for a specified ratio of, say, 1 lash for every two years of jail time? He's not suggesting cutting serial killers or terrorists loose, but thinks something needs to be done to address less dangerous offenders and rein in what is already the highest rate of incarceration in the world (five times the global average, far higher than in Iran or China, and higher even than Russia).

Moskos avoids several easy traps, such as not suggesting that all prisoners be eligible for this option and providing for some input by victims of crime, and he's creative in the way he diagnoses the problem and prescribes his rather unique and distinctive solution. It's an uncomfortable book to read sometimes, but also a witty and extremely well-written one, and it raises important issues that should be taken seriously even if his solution isn't.

The author has been asked to write an op-ed on the subject for the Wall Street Journal, and I'm ready to predict another Tiger Mother-style controversy. But the difference is that Moskos has ingredients in his arguments that are likely to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum, from the most woolly-minded liberal to conservatives in favor of the toughest punishments imaginable. Indeed, it would be rather amusing to watch the two extremes forced to agree on something at last...

For such a slim book, this is very comprehensive and even though I wriggled with discomfort, I can't help recommending it very highly. I just suggest removing the dust jacket if you're planning on reading it in public...

Mystery Monday: Some off-the-beaten-track British crime stories

Whenever I stumble over a new author or mystery series that I enjoy, I find myself doing a small celebratory dance. (Nope, no photos exist of this phenomenon, luckily for me...) For some reason, recently I've found some new favorites from amongst the ranks of British mystery writers, perhaps because they are somewhat less likely to write cozy tales set in knitting shops, tea shops or among quilting bees (hey, I knit and quilt and occasionally would like to stab the creator of a particularly fiendish pattern or recipe, but, skeptic that I am, I struggle to believe that these are likely to be tremendous centers of crime...) Some of these authors have been writing for a while but the series or writer are new to me; others are newbie authors.

Let's kick off today's discussion with the Lake District mysteries of Martin Edwards, a series that began with The Coffin Trail a few years ago. The protagonist of the series is historian Daniel Kind, who has done very well indeed hosting all kinds of TV history shows, and who has decided to flee his recent past and move back to the Lake District of England, where his estranged father, a policeman lived until his death. There his path crosses that of DCI Hannah Scarlett, a protégée of his father's, when he begins to have doubts about the guilt of a childhood friend who once lived in the cottage he is now renovating with his partner, Miranda, and who was widely assumed to be guilty of killing a young woman and leaving her body on ancient sacrificial stones. But Barrie died soon after, leaving the puzzle unsolved -- until Daniel and Hannah, now in charge of the Cold Case division, resurrect the investigation.

That's just the first in a series of what are now five mysteries (other titles include The Cipher Garden, The Arsenic Labyrinth, and The Serpent Pool) featuring Daniel and Hannah, each of which has done an excellent job in moving forward the characters and exploring fascinating cold cases, often incorporating everything from ancient Cumbrian myths to more recent history of the Lake District (like Thomas de Quincey's time there.) I recently read the most recent in the series, The Hanging Wood, which was published on this side of the Atlantic in April. In this, the daughter of a local farmer kills herself after making frantic calls to the police trying to persuade them to probe the long-ago-disappearance of her brother. As Hannah and her team begin to ask questions about the young woman's death, and investigate the people with whom her life was entangled, more mysteries emerge and more deaths follow. While the plot is reasonably standard for this kind of police procedural, Edwards has a real knack for character development and a tremendous sense of place. In this case, the investigation revolves around a local library and historical association patronized by the local gentry, members of whom have a few too many secrets that they are trying to keep, and it's fascinating to follow Daniel and Hannah's attempts to extricate the truth from them. While this isn't the strongest of the books (I'd opt for the first two or three, which are up around the 4.5 star mark), I wouldn't want to miss a new book in this series. That's how compelling Edwards makes his characters, who are so "real" that I'm quite convinced they are alive and working away in the Lake District right now. This was a 3.8 star book for me, and I'd recommend that you check out this series if you're at all interested in character-driven detective tales.

If history is a backdrop to Martin Edwards' mysteries, it is front and center in the case of Imogen Robertson's new series, set in the England of the early 1780s. It's a turbulent time; England is struggling in the final days of the American revolutionary war, and there is dissent at home, too. Here, Robertson has chosen as her main characters a "natural philosopher" with secrets in his past, Gabriel Crowther; he is enlisted, against his will, to help Harriet Westerman, the wife of a naval captain who has come to live nearby, when she finds a dead body almost on her doorstep. That happens in Instruments of Darkness, the debut novel that is now available in the United States and Canada; despite its small flaws (too many viewpoints and complicated relationships) I was fascinated by the author's ability to capture a sense of time and place. She does it again in Anatomy of Murder, in which she deals with themes as varied as the musical scene in 18th century London (including castrati!) and high treason; this was so very good that I didn't even blink when it came time to fork over Amazon.co.uk's astonishingly high shipping fees in order to get the third book in the series, Island of Bones. This is a more conventional tale, one in which the normally cool and collected Crowther must deal with the ugly secrets of his past in order to solve a more contemporary crime and in which Harriet's young son works with a "cunning man" to help his mother rescue an innocent victim and identify the criminal.

Again, Robertson's books have wonderful characters. Harriet Westerman is impulsive, sometimes too much so for her more conventional sister, who worries about the impact of her unconventional behavior (and the publicity she gleans for solving crimes) on the future of her children. Gabriel Crowther is an outcast of a different kind; he conducts experiments (including autopsies of murder victims) and tries to find scientific explanations for the phenomena he encounters in an age where science was only beginning to take hold. Both are fascinating people to follow through the three books; both also offer a window into a little-known period of history. I can't wait to see what Robertson has in store for them.

The common element in these books is the strength of the characters. I'm not that crazy about mysteries that are all action; on the other hand, give me a new P.D. James novel featuring the wonderfully complex Adam Dalgliesh and his diverse team of investigators and suspects, and I'll think I've died and gone to heaven. Neither of these novels reaches the level set by P.D. James, but both are crafting books that deserve a much wider readership than they appear to be getting. Even if you don't see them on the front displays at your local bookstores, it's definitely worth the effort to hunt them down and read them...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Timely Commentary on Kindle Singles!

Only a few hours after writing my earlier post about the Kindle Singles I've been reading, I spotted this article by the author of a new Kindle Single that I haven't yet read, but probably now will. In it, he comments that "essays are now the kiss of death almost everywhere in the publishing businesses... The prevailing wisdom is that nobody reads them." If true, that's horrifying -- and it probably is true. In any case, the author spells out something that I've wondered about for a while: whether there might not be a market for short segments of longer and more complex non-fiction books. In some cases, these might address specific topics of interest, but they might also pique a reader's curiosity, prodding them to buy the longer opus. Jim Cullen writes "at some point in the process of working on my new book, I found myself wondering, does this make sense as a book? Might it not make more sense as a set of five or six chapter-length e-books? Very often, instructors only use part of a book; in any case, they rarely assign the whole thing at once ... I made a pitch along these lines to a major university press, which reacted with respectful interest. It's in their future, I was told. But not yet."

Except that the bright mind at Amazon that I referred to earlier has already caught on to this...

I'll continue to keep an eye on Kindle Singles and report back on the best of them.

Books for Kindles: Some Thoughts & Recommendations

In today's issue of The Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), there's a fascinating article by John Naughton about the doors that have been opened to previously unpublished authors by the arrival of the Kindle and other e-readers. That prompted me to ponder the proliferation of Kindle-only content, "independent" publishing and other such phenomena, and generated some mixed conclusions.

The first of these is that -- without question -- Naughton's observation that "at a stroke, all those tiresome gatekeepers – those self-important agents, editors and publishers who stood between you and recognition – are abolished. Suddenly, the world can see your hitherto unrecognised talent in all its glory" is all-too-true. Out of curiosity, I have downloaded some books that looked appealing, only to find that they were almost literally unreadable. Even when the plot was borderline coherent, and the characters marginally interesting, the authors have failed to realize that their work could only be improved with some oversight by some of those very "tiresome gatekeepers." After all, the job of the latter is to try and make a book the best book it can possibly be, and thus they have a vested interest in winnowing out purplish prose, eliminating repetitive redundancies (yes, I did that on purpose...) and cleaning up typos and grammatical hiccups. Some authors, sadly, fail to realize that their deathless prose might actually be improved by an editor or that their stories need a lot of work before they are ready for prime time, and interpret constructive criticism from pernicious gatekeepers as a refusal to recognize their peerless prose for what it is.

Don't misunderstand me. I have stumbled across some winners among self-published books, particularly in the arena of historical fiction. Susan Higginbotham's debut (and still my fave among her books), The Traitor's Wife, was picked up by a mainstream publisher after wowing a lot of historical fiction fans with its fascinating and well-researched look at the fall of Edward II, orchestrated by his queen and her lover. (In my eyes, it helped that the story was told through the eyes of a little-known player, the king's niece and wife to his 'favorite', Hugh le Despenser.) Another veteran of the HF scene, Brian Wainwright, has written a few self-published books, including the absolutely hilarious Adventures of Alianore Audley and the rather dense Within the Fetterlock, both of which definitely deserve wider audiences and a mainstream publisher.

By and large, however, the Kindle-only titles contain -- sadly -- a lot of books that never reach their full potential, for whatever reason. With one glaring example: Kindle Singles.

I don't know which genius at Amazon (or elsewhere) came up with this concept, but whoever it is should be carefully followed, because that person has a good eye for publishing concepts that will work in the digital era. I've now read more than half-a-dozen of these small-scale offerings (which translate into anywhere from 14 to 70-odd pages in "real" "dead tree" books), and conclude that this is a brilliant way to bring great reporting to a wider audience than would otherwise be possible -- and to do it in a timely fashion.

For instance, within only a few weeks of Osama bin Laden's death, Kindlers like me (and remember, you don't need to own the e-reader itself to sample these; the Kindle app is available for computers, phones and other devices) could read Christopher Hitchens's musings on "bin Ladenism" in The Enemy. I've read the moving tale of Jacques Leslie's return to Indochina, where he worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Cambodia, in War Wounds. ProPublica has taken advantage of the Kindle Single to showcase some of its prize-winning work by folks like Sebastian Rotella, who scored an Overseas Press Club Award for reporting that shows up in Pakistan and the Mumbai Terror Attacks, and the inimitable Jesse Eisinger, who scored a Pulitzer for his reporting on the financial crisis this year -- which Kindle Single followers can read in The Wall Street Money Machine: together, these are a great example of a new kind of journalism (for more info on the non-profit ProPublica, check out its site here) taking advantage of a new kind of publishing model.

Of all of these, a list of my three favorites have to start with the painful and painstakingly-researched piece by Jon Krakauer that put an end to Greg Mortenson's career as philanthropic hero, Three Cups of Deceit. From David Wolman, author of an upcoming book about the future of money, came The Instigators, a behind-the-scenes-look at the Egyptian revolution of early this year, through the tale of Ahmed Mahar, an engineer who unexpectedly found himself becoming a political activism in the years that lead up to Mubarak's ouster. Chinese Dreams, by Indian writer Anand Giridharas, addresses China's economic boom in a way that I've been curious about for years, but haven't seen many writers focus on in isolation: the question of whether there is a uniquely Chinese approach to being a superpower and whether the rejection of the West's "lessons" might be more than just pique. All three are heartily recommended -- 4.5 star offerings from the world of the Kindle Single.

The ability to send content out into the world, unmediated, via Kindle may be a trap for writers without the ability to take a cold, hard look at their own prose, it can be a boon for those of us with an interest in longform journalism. At any rate, in spite of Naughton's valid qualms about e-book publishing outlined in his article, I can only conclude that there's at least some gold to be found out there in Kindle-land by those willing to hunt for it -- and that means that we'll see even more creative uses of this new way to reach readers in the future.

Just Added to My Shelves:

A few of the books I've added to my (already overloaded) bookshelves in the last ten days or so; I'm hoping to get to at least some of these before the end of the summer!
  • The Good Muslim by Tahmina Anam (Amazon Vine, advance copy)
  • The White Devil by Justin Evans (Amazon Vine, advance review copy)
  • The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud (Library)
  • Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays by Chinua Achebe (gift)
  • The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (UK purchase)
  • Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl (publisher giveaway)
  • Fatal Risk by Roddy Boyd (publisher review copy)
  • French Leave by Anna Gavalda (Library)
  • Nothing Daunted by Elizabeth Wickenden (purchase)
  • On the Origin of Teepees by Jonnie Hughes (publisher e-galley)
  • Class Warfare by Steven Brill (publisher e-galley)
And now that I'm back from my trip to the West Coast (attending a fascinating conference about corporate governance at Stanford), I'll be able to catch up on posting what I've been reading and what I can recommend here!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Books to Help Beat the Heat: "The Informant" by Thomas Perry

    When the weather is hot and muggy and your brain feels too sluggish to focus on the literary classics or the latest prize-winning novels that you know you should be reading, it's time to turn to one of those books often referred to as "beach reads". They're not really that challenging -- the plots are easy to follow, the characters have relatively simple and straightforward motivations, and the story is action all the way, whether it's a chick lit romance or a suspense thriller. The Informant by Thomas Perry falls squarely into the latter category, and while it's not likely to linger in your memory for its deathless prose or pitch-perfect characterizations, you'll certainly forget the fact that your airconditioner is on the blink and your sunburn is making you feel as if you've been sizzling on a griddle as you follow retired hit man Michael Schaeffer as he tries to convince a recalcitrant bunch of Mafia dons that he really is retired, and has no interest in their ongoing turf battles. The problem is, the mob doesn't believe him, and won't let him live in peace with his aristocratic English wife in their rural mansion. So, Schaeffer heads back to the United States, and mayhem ensues.
    The story is adequate -- lots of chases, lots of glimpses inside the mind of the "Butcher's Boy" (who has featured in two other Perry novels) as he meticulously plots his actions and out-thinks his enemies -- and lots of bodies piling up. That trail of corpses piques the curiosity of Elizabeth Waring, a Justice Department investigator who has encountered "Schaeffer" before -- and she becomes still more intent on using the former hit man to rein in the mob when he appears in her home in the middle of the night, not to murder her, but to try and figure out what's going on. Before long, Waring is trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, trying to co-opt Schaeffer as an informant and stop him from following what he considers to be the logical path to protect himself -- killing anyone who might be a threat. Sure, there are plenty of holes in this kind of plot, and you'll need to put your skepticism on hold while you read, but being skeptical and critical takes a lot of energy in the hot weather, doesn't it?
    I've read the prior novel in this series, and while it's fun to see how Perry's characters formulate their plans and act on them to outwit the law, I still prefer reading about someone who does it for a good reason, like Jane Whitfield, the heroine of Perry's other series. She's half-Seneca Indian, and uses tribal lore and 20th/21st century smarts to help innocent people in peril of their lives get to a place of safety and build new lives -- she's a guide, of sorts. Needless to say, each time she does this life gets more complicated than she imagines and to keep her charges safe, she goes to extraordinary lengths. While The Informant is an entertaining if rather violent (in a matter-of-fact way) suspense novel, the Jane Whitfield books (which include titles like Dance for the Dead, Vanishing Act and Blood Money) are much, much better -- great suspense reads at any time of the year. Some of his stand-alone books are also well worth looking for, notably Death Benefits. Try those first, then if you like Perry's style, it's time to take a look at this 3.7 star book.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley.

"Indigo teaches you to be humble in life."


           For years, Catherine McKinley has been almost hypnotized by the deep blues created by indigo dye – and particularly fascinated by the indigo cloth that once served as a key trade good and source of wealth in several West African nations. Deeply conflicted by her own heritage and upbringing – the daughter of an African American and  a Jewish American, adopted by white WASPy parents – McKinley’s fascination with indigo becomes even deeper as she investigates her own roots and heritage.

            Of course, not all personal obsessions, however fascinating, translate into great books, and this is a reminder of that. The story of McKinley’s quest to discover more about indigo during a long stay in West Africa, this is a book that is filled with “wow” moments but that somehow never manages to deliver a knock-out blow as an entire work. For instance, I found myself riveted to the page as McKinley discusses the life of an Austrian opponent to Nazism who built a new life for herself in Nigeria based on Yoruba spiritual traditions and the related crafts; as she explores the stories of the warrior women of Dahomey and their indigo; as she is caught up in a coup in Ivory Coast as she hunts out more indigo, or encounters a modern-day Dogon from Mali who is reviving the ancient customs of the dye pot. But these stories and adventures don’t  really knit together as well as they should, or form a coherent narrative arc.  McKinley is clearly on some kind of quest related to or sparked by her indigo compulsion, but is it a scholarly one? A personal and psychological one? What are the steps along the way? These are unclear, and McKinley herself seems to dither about this, repeatedly breaking into her narrative to question why she is caught up in this quest.  Several times she repeats the criticism of Eurama, the Ghanaian woman she meets and who becomes almost a surrogate mother that she “is chasing folly, and the mere vessels of life’s beauty.” And she seems to agree, describing her fascination as  “my insatiable desire, my drunken need.” She reaches out and then pulls back again: “I had hoped to touch the way of being of the artist, the cosmological and spiritual world of the dye pot, but evidently it was a world I might never enter. And should I enter, the uninitiated, the stranger with time only to look and buy?”  But within a few sentences, she is back on the hunt for indigo cloths and indigo stories.

            That kind of agonizing gets annoying after a while, as do some of the author’s more purple-hued turns of phrase. (Perhaps the indigo has spread into her writing style??) Some of her descriptions or comments left me downright flummoxed as to what she meant, or wondering why on earth she had chosen such oblique and ornate language. For instance, McKinley describes  the Ivoirian minister of communications as “a dark, hedged soul”, whatever that might be. She refers to a clothing making technique that is ancient but which the maker “flexes with Japanese knowledge.” Does she mean combines?? She comments on the extreme heat in Niger that  “there is a gentleness to the extreme, and you trust and dance into the fire.”  There are certainly creative and colorful ways to express heat, but that just felt florid.

            Nonetheless – this is a fascinating book, and one I’d recommend taking a look at. It’s the best kind of “who knew?” story, one absolutely littered with obscure tidbits of information that help the reader piece together a broader tale about West Africa, about slavery and colonialism, about traditional arts and crafts and the link between those products and culture and religious traditions. Who knew, for instance, that those vivid designs on the clothes those of us who live in large cities with West African populations can see women wearing can be up to 150 years old, and carry names that identify them? The choice of what cloth to wear can deliver a message to a husband, a co-wife, a community – names like “men are not like ears of corn” or “stairs to heaven” or “life is sweet” each convey certain meanings, even when they no longer contain any indigo.

            Even though I started this book with minimal curiosity about indigo itself (I was more intrigued by element of the journey of self-discovery), I found myself Googling images of the cloth, the designs and the people who wear them by the time I was halfway through the book. It’s a reminder that the objects that we value – even in this ultra-globalized society – still differ depending on our cultural heritage. McKinley offers her readers the chance to look behind the curtain at one part of the world that is still too little known, and if the price to be paid is to put up with some bumpy writing and the author’s personal dithering, well, I ended up feeling that it was worth it. 4 stars; recommended.

            Full disclosure: I obtained an advance review copy of this book from Amazon.com through their Vine program. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mystery Monday: War's violence leaves a legacy

Well, it's still technically Monday here on the west coast, where I am at present, so I hope you'll forgive the very late update! And I can't yet post the cover picture atop this post, as the bed & breakfast I'm staying in is not only sans airconditioning (a problem, as Silicon Valley has just succumbed to a heat wave) but really, deeply inadequate Internet access.

Still, I wanted to draw attention to the first in a new series of mysteries that has made its debut in England and is now crossing the Atlantic to these shores. I've just received the second book from the UK, and I'll report back on that shortly, but in the meantime, anyone who has read and enjoyed even some of the novels of "Charles Todd" (in reality, a mother/son writing duo) or Jacqueline Winspear's series of mysteries featuring psychologist detective Maisie Dobbs (indeed, even the Joe Sandilands mysteries from Barbara Cleverly), is likely to find something to relish in the pages of The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller. True, it's another mystery set in the aftermath of World War I and with a plot that revolves around the war and its aftermath, but "post WW1 fatigue" after reading the Todd and Winspear books is no reason to avoid this book -- in many ways, it feels like a stand-alone novel rather than the beginning of a series, and is all the better for it, offering the reader elements that aren't part of the other two series.

Laurence Bartram, like so many other still-young men, has returned from the trenches and their horrors only to find that postwar life offers a very different and more muted kind of horror -- the perils of adjusting to "normality". The only memory of his former life, as Speller's novel opens, is the piano that his wife Louise once cherished; she and their infant son died the same day he went "over the top" on teh Western Front in a particularly brutal and pointless battle. Now Bartram tries to build a new kind of life for himself, desultorily pondering the idea of writing a book about church architecture. Then the sister of a schoolfriend, John Emmett, seeks him out. She wants his help understanding why her brother killed himself.

That's the starting point for what becomes a very good novel, even if some of its themes are overly familiar to the avid mystery buff. For instance, Bartram has a bluff sidekick, Charles, who resembles Poirot's buddy, Hastings, only with a few more little grey cells. There's a romantic interest; a cast of supporting characters who fulfill various predictable roles in the investigation and in Speller's portrait of postwar England. And yet... Speller handles these well enough that even when one part of my brain was telling me "yeah, I might have known this would happen!", another corner of it was telling it to shut up and instructing me to keep reading. Speller does an excellent job of crafting a sense of time and place. While Laurence Bartram isn't nearly as complex or nuanced a character as Ian Rutledge, the war veteran Scotland Yard detective created by Charles Todd, and the mystery isn't as intriguing as the early books in that series, the overall story is both gripping and fresh. At times the writing also goes beyond solid to reach "very good indeed" levels. This book (which I first read as a NetGalley offering) is undoubtedly a "thumping good read"; 4 stars. Evidence of how much I enjoyed it is that I ordered the sequel from the UK, forking over Amazon's hefty shipping charges. It's nice to have a fresh mystery series and a new "voice" that you enjoy...

Thinking about this book made me realize that the trauma of World War I (and particularly the trenches of the Western Front) have been a literary bonanza for mystery writers. When it comes to World War II, an older book that I dipped into last week made me realize that an utterly different kind of trend seems to be taking shape in mystery novels set against a background of World War II: the counterfactual mystery. A series of authors have now crafted mysteries or thrillers whose action takes place against the backdrop of a Britain that has been conquered by Nazi Germany in World War II. Perhaps the first of these that i read was Fatherland, the breakthrough novel by Robert Harris (who went on to write tomes like Enigma, Pompeii and Imperium.) I don't remember that much about that one -- I certainly wasn't bowled over by it -- but then a few years ago read a much less well-known book by British author Murray Davies, Collaborator, that deserves a much wider audience. In it, Nick Penny returns to occupied England and must grapple with the changes he finds, even as he is forced to work for the German occupiers and his oldest friend becomes involved in the resistance. This is an excellent and fast-paced novel that I defy you to put down... Reading SS-GB by Len Deighton reminded me -- perhaps a bit too much -- of Davies's novel. This 1970s-vintage book is an OK look at the plight of a policeman caught up by his desire to solve crime, and his need to keep multiple different German bosses happy. In both cases, the picture of England is one that is bleak, indeed, but Davies manages to structure a better story and sustain the suspense better. Seek it  out -- you won't regret it. (The other counterfactual books of this kind are written by Jo Walton, a trilogy beginning with Farthing. I'd give the Deighton book 3.2 stars, the Walton series about 3.5 to 3.8 stars, and the Davies novel 4.4 stars.

Memo to self: it's time to look at one of the non-fiction books devoted to alternative or counterfactual history that I've got on hand -- it's fun when scholars get creative and imaginative!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Award Watch: The Richest Literary Prize in the US to Debut in 2012/13

About a million dollars in prizes to be awarded annually -- about the same per prize as the Dublin Impac Award, and more than ten times what the Pulitzer and National Book Awards yield, and double what the lucky winner of the Man Booker can expect to pocket. It will be interesting to see what the criteria are, and what kind of works get recognized as a result!


The Book Biz: Next-Gen Book Tours

When Chasing Goldman Sachs came out last summer, and people started asking me when/where I'd be going on book tour, my publicist broke it to me that book tours are so last century. But it looks like Ayelet Waldman has found a clever way to innovate! And my friend Kim Brittingham has come up with an even wilder proposal: anyone who buys a very large quantity of her new memoir, Read My Hips, to give away, wins her presence and participation in a creative project of the purchaser's choice. Glad to see such creativity in marketing, beyond the creativity on the printed page!


A book to which no review could do justice...

Every so often, a book comes along that is so unique and distinctive - and so good - that it makes me stop and catch my breath; a book worthy of being added to my list of all-time favorites or a hypothetical list of 100 books that I wouldn't want to have missed reading. Rondo is one of these, and it's a crime that it is going overlooked relative to some of the other authors that Europa Editions has introduced to English-language readers, such as Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and Laurence Cosse (A Novel Bookstore) both of whom have generated a lot of buzz in the last year or two. But Brandys casts them into the shade...

In Rondo, Brandys spins a complex narrative, and simply following it is both a challenge and infinitely rewarding. When I picked up the book intending only to skim the first few pages, I was immediately drawn in by the narrator's voice as he begins his tale, and couldn't put it down. From the opening words, in which the anonymous narrator informs his hypothetical reader -- an editor at a journal that has just published what purports to be an account of a part of the Polish resistance movement to the Nazi occupation in World War II, a group named Rondo -- declares his intent to set the record straight, I was gripped. There was no point at which I could bear to put the book down, and before I knew it, I had read 50 pages, following "Tom's" attempt to convince his reader that Rondo was only an invention; indeed, that it was his invention. No, he assures his readers: "I am not a maniac, I do not suffer from hallucinations and I have never sent letters to magazines before."

Thus begins a complex tale that takes some 350 pages to recount in full, even though he often leaps forward, as if assuming that his readers are familiar to some extent with him and his postwar history. So we know he survived, we know that after the war he was interrogated (by unnamed officials) about his involvement in the resistance, and as we turn the pages we learn more and more details, dropped into the narrative almost casually but which dramatically change the way we understand "Tom" (to give him his nom de guerre) and his story. The story is a bit like peeling an onion: you remove one layer of the story, and there's another one, containing deeper truths, just below. There is a new character inserted almost incidentally; a major event referred to in passing; a foreshadowing of some future cataclysm even though we, the readers, don't learn what that is until much later.

The complexity, far from daunting me, actually enriched the experience. I actually found myself reading more slowly - deliberately so - to prolong the experience and fully relish Brandys's writing and the wealth of detail that he provides, all of which ends by conjuring up a vivid sense of Warsaw in the years leading up to and during World War II. I am quite convinced that all of these characters exist somewhere in the world - Tola, the woman with whom "Tom" is obsessed and on whose behalf he invents Rondo (he wants to keep her from becoming dangerously entangled with the "real) resistance; his old friends from college, some of whom end up playing increasingly disturbing roles in his life; the brusque military officer who leads the Home Army underground of which "Tom" is a part; the actors he works with; his father... all of them are vivid and individual. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly Brandys's style, which is to provide immense levels of detailed description. For instance, when, during the early years of the Nazi rule, a café opens where theater types can gather, Brandys doesn't just mention that it opens and describes it. He tells us how its owner got a backer, and that the backer was a Pomeranian landowner who earned his money from a marmalade factory in Warsaw, and who collected art. Warsaw itself he describes vividly in war and in peace, including during one particularly bleak period as being dark "as if drenched in the winter dusk."

The real suspense in this novel doesn't kick in until about halfway through, when the fictional Rondo falls victim to the internecine squabbling among various resistance factions - a foreshadowing of the postwar conflicts between East and West. "Tom" has made of Rondo something far too convincing, and his creation spins out of his control and turns on him, a bit like a Frankenstein monster. "Tom" becomes cynical as various sides of the conflict seem to him to be formulating political theories and certainties that he finds it increasingly hard to relate to. "I stopped believing in facts - I knew how they were fabricated," he tells his reader(s). After all, hadn't he invented Rondo, only to have a professor, decades later, write a wholly fictional account of the organization and its roots in a tone of the utmost scholarly certainty?

Indeed, one of themes of this novel is the line between fact and fantasy - what is it that is "real" and what is invented is blurred. What, "Tom" wonders, was his real motivation for creating Rondo? "Perhaps I was craving fiction, looking for something higher than everyday life, for a more complete composition and more harmonious rhyme. Existence was not enough for me," he muses. He considers his passion for Tola, the actress who has become famous since he first met her. "Wasn't it, all along, my self-creation? Sometimes it occurs to me that I invented the affair only to measure myself against it." It's a story about emotional growth and maturity, of "Tom" moving slowly but steadily from a rather aimless drifting through life (motivated purely by his love for Tola) to a state where that emotion becomes the catalyst for other kinds of commitment. But above all, this is a novel about memory; rapidly, it becomes clear that "Tom's" reason for writing what turns into a prolonged response to the article about Rondo has less to do with setting the record straight in the public eye, and a lot more with trying to recapture the facts of the matter and set them in order in his own mind. "Perhaps the need to reminisce has been with me for a long time?" And, of course, there are no easy answers - hence the length and complexity of his recollections, and their scattershot nature.

This is a brilliant novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. I first discovered it at the library, and realized that I wasn't going to be satisfied not owning the book and glancing back through it over the years to come, so I ordered a copy for my shelves. It isn't simple or straightforward; the language is rich and complex and following the narrative requires attention. But Brandys never reneges on his side of the deal: he's a storyteller, recounting a compelling and very human tale of several complex characters, "Tom" and Tola chief among them. If you pick one novel to read this year that is slightly off the beaten track, or even out of your comfort zone, make it this one. I wish I had discovered this author long ago, or that I read Polish so I could hunt down any of his other works in print. I also wish Amazon provided an option for a sixth star!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

From the stage of the Hippodrome to the Emperor's box in Constantinople

"Theodora of the Hippodrome, of the brothel, could never have achieved so much if she had not been practical as well as wild." So writes novelist Stella Duffy of Theodora, the daughter of a bear-keeper in sixth-century Constantinople, who rose to become Empress of Byzantium, alongside one of that empire's strongest rulers, Justinian.

It's hard to find well-written historical fiction these days that is more than just another variant of a story told about the ancient Romans, the Plantagenets, the Tudors or the days of the French Revolution. But in this novel (already available in the UK; to be published in the US in September) Duffy tells the story of Theodora and her improbable feat. Born into a world which offered her little choice beyond taking to the stage of the Hippodrome as an acrobat and comedienne renowned, so history tells it, for lewd performances involving geese. (Read it for yourselves...) Offstage, like all actresses of the period, she earned money as a prostitute -- and the most she could hope for was to find someone who would take her on as a mistress for the short term; no man was allowed to marry a performer. But Theodora's life takes a surprising course just when it seems her hopes of some stability vanish and she discovers a new direction for herself, both personally and as a public figure.

The Constantinople that Duffy portrays so vividly in this fascinating novel is a world in which ordinary working men and women are prepared to literally come to blows over the pressing theological issues of the day, particularly the precise nature of Christ's divinity. That territory has proven to be a minefield for other authors, notably Anne Perry, whose recent foray into historical fiction set prior to 1850 (The Sheen on the Silk set in a later Constantinople) was deeply disappointing. Duffy succeeds triumphantly where Perry failed, painting a portrait in words of a woman whose face has come down to us through time in the form of the famous mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. Her Theodora is a pragmatist; hard-headed, ribald and too outspoken for her own good, her challenge to develop judgment, compassion and heart. And the world she inhabits is conjured up for us from the physical setting to its scents and sounds; its mores and the ribald dramas its masses prefer; the role of eunuchs and the importance of the various religious schisms -- Monophysite, Arian, etc. None of that ever feels overwhelming in Duffy's hands.

Best of all, Duffy doesn't make the mistake of romanticizing Theodora's story. Romantic love was largely absent in any modern sense in her era, and Duffy doesn't fall into the trap of trying to impose a 21st century ethos on her 6th century characters. True, the language is crisp and modern -- no "thees" and "thous" -- but the attitudes are very much of the time, with Theodora experiencing pain and pleasure but never really lapsing into sentimentality. That can make it harder to identify with Theodora as a person, perhaps, but not to enjoy or appreciate the book itself, which I simply couldn't put down.

This novel is a boon for historical fiction fans, especially those in search of a respite from the endless stream of books set in northern Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Duffy has made her name in the UK with some of her contemporary novels short-listed for the Orange Prize; I'll be hunting for some of those as well as hoping that she pens a sequel to this excellent book, which ends as Justinian and Theodora become rulers of the empire.

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of the book via NetGalley.com. I expect that when it becomes available for purchase in the US that I'll be adding it to my permanent library.

For some other historical novels set outside the mainstream, try the following:
  • Indu Sundaresan's trilogy about Moghul India, culminating in The Shadow Princess
  • A Man in Uniform, Kate Taylor's novel set in the Paris of the Dreyfus scandal and the "Belle Epoque".
  • Two novels by Jude Morgan, The King's Touch (based on the life of the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II's illegitimate son) and Passion, which deals with the interlinked lives of Shelley, Byron, and Keats. 
  • Beautiful Creatures by Tracey Chevalier, focusing on the life of a woman in obsessive quest of fossils in the early 19th century.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Just Added to My Shelves:

I'll be reading (and possibly reviewing) some of these in the coming weeks:
  • The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Library)
  • The Most Dangerous Book in the World by Christopher Krebs (Purchase)
  • Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy (Amazon Vine -- ARC)
  • Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson (UK purchase)
  • Prince by Rory Clements (from the UK - purchase) 
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Library)
  • The Genetic Strand by Edward Ball (Library)
  • Arriving in Avignon by Daniel Robberechts; translated by Paul Vincent (Dalkey Archive sale)
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton (Paperbackswap)
That's just a small cross section of what I've got on hand to read in my tottering TBR (to-be-read) stacks. And tomorrow (Thursday) is "Amazon Vine Day #1", the day on which Amazon sends me a list of items from which I can pick two to review. Under the terms of this invite-based program, the third Thursday is allegedly a targeted list and the fourth Thursday, everything that's leftover is made available. Not surprisingly, my offerings are usually heavily weighted toward books, but I'll be eager to see what's on the list!

Scandi-Crime Mania: Uneven Results...

Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell have a lot to answer for. Around the world, publishers are eagerly seeking out the next new Scandinavian crime writer, someone who can draw in the readers and generate the kind of profits they've earned from Mankell's long-running Kurt Wallender series and the phenomenon (no other word fits) of Larsson's Millennium trilogy (staring with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Sadly, at least in this reader's opinion, the results haven't been overwhelming.

I've tried and failed to get into Arnaldur Indridason's Jar City twice (it's the Icelandic author's first novel in a series that has only recently been rolled out for American readers) and was not very impressed by Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (and nope, it has nothing to do with the fact that I couldn't begin to pronounce that author's full name). I was initially very impressed with Camilla Lackberg's series featuring a police detective on the west coast of Sweden, but despite the fact that the plotlines are intriguing and the setting is interesting in its own right, after The Ice Princess (the author's debut), the books have been less compelling and I've even found myself wondering if her character, Patrik Hedstrom, might be slightly dim-witted, given his ability to overlook the obvious. (A dead giveaway is when Hedstrom notices that someone he's interviewing is withholding information -- and instead of pressing them, wanders away pondering the fact. Hmm -- any journalist I know doing that would unemployed in short order...) Karin Fossum, a Norwegian, is competent but the one book of hers I read didn't persuade me to buy more; I've yet to give Jo Nesbo, another Norwegian, a fair trial, I admit, so I'll refrain from judgment for now and report back when I've read The Redbreast.

And so to my latest foray in Scandi-crime: Red Wolf by Liza Marklund. I wish I could say this was a great discovery, but I can't. The underlying plot line has potential: the journalist heroine is investigating a 1960s terrorist attack that may have been committed by local Maoists -- hey, it was that era, after all. One mysterious death follows another, and Annika ends up as a kind of lone crusader, betrayed by all those who are closest to her in one way or another. So far, so OK: it's kind of the standard crime template, which, in solid hands, can make for a rewarding read. But the book ends up as being only so-so, partly due to its characters. Some are stock personalities; others are simply not believable. (The female characters, in particular, seem to have so many dizzy spells and feelings of being ill, I wanted to ship them off to a doctor.) And the writing is sometimes clunky, though it's hard to say how much is due to the author and how much the translator. For instance, what does "hair like an apple" mean?? I did pass an entertaining few minutes pondering what the woman being referred to might look like with a juicy McIntosh, Spy or Granny Smith perched atop her neck and shoulders, at least. The bottom line: this isn't bad, but with so many good mystery series competing for our attention on the shelves, I wouldn't really recommend it. 3.3 stars; I'll try the next one that becomes available here just in case part of the problem was jumping into the books midway through the series (several don't seem available on this side of the Atlantic; I'd have to order them from the UK and I'm not impressed enough to do that.) Stick to Larsson; I'm planning to discover Mankell next.

Note to followers: Staring next week, look for "Mystery Mondays", a feature that will focus on what I've been reading in the world of mysteries, thrillers and suspense novels.

A quick followup note as of June 20: Last night in London, Hakan Nesser (author of yet another Scandi-crime series) spoke in London to a group of bibliofans (Karen Fossum was also there.) According to a "tweet" from the London Review Bookshop (organizer of the World Literature Weekend event of which this converation among crime authors was a part), Nesser commented that the current wave of Nordic crime books has become a "tsunami", and that it's a bit "embarassing'. Five years from now, he predicted that Sweden will be back to music and tennis. Now, I'm not sure what music and tennis has to do with it, but I'll be glad to see a handful of great writers make it into translation, rather than a tsunami of adequate ones!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Euthanasia: Mrs Pratchett doesn't want him to do it | People in the News | People | The First Post

Euthanasia: Mrs Pratchett doesn't want him to do it | People in the News | People | The First Post

Terry Pratchett, diagnosed with Alzheimer's, says he has filled out but not yet signed the forms provided by "Dignitas", a Swiss organization that helps people die with dignity. Martin Amis argues that euthanasia should be readily available to everyone. For a thought-provoking literary look at the issues involved with suicide -- is it our responsibility to those we love to stay alive? -- I'd suggest reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham -- 5 stars.

"If we were allowed to magically roll back history..."


That's the question that Adam Hochschild posits at the outset of this wonderful book about World War I: had that shot fired in Sarajevo, killing the heir to the Habsburg empire, never triggered the war, what kind of world might we inhabit today?

I admit I was predisposed to love this book. I'm convinced that if Adam Hochschild went off to a conference of ichthyologists, he would return with a compelling narrative about an obscure kind of spiny fish that no one had ever previously suspected was of any importance, and create a passion for oceanography and all the related disciplines among all his readers. That's the kind of storytelling prowess that Hochschild brings to all his books and that makes this latest narrative one of the best I've read about the First World War -- a part of history that is so replete with histories and first-hand narratives ranging from the mundane to the literary that prior to reading this I would have been prepared to swear there simply wasn't any room for a top-notch work offering a new perspective on the war or the issues it raised. Or, for that matter, any need for yet another tome on the subject.

I am delighted to have been proven dead wrong. Hochschild has chosen a fresh angle to explore, one that most of those who write about war shy away from altogether. Is war moral? Is it necessary? Is it something to be celebrated and glorified, or something we should avoid as a socially destructive force? When World War One ended, it became known as the war to end all wars -- so horrific had the experiences of survivors been, that they insisted war could NOT be contemplated again. And yet, at the outset, the mood was something quite different -- even socialists who had celebrated the global union of working men voted in favor of war and, with rare exceptions like Britain's Keir Hardie (one of the heroes of Hochschild's story) supported it and turned out to fight men whom they had embraced as fellow workers only months earlier but who had suddenly become "the enemy".

Hochschild does a superb job of finding the characters through which to tell his story -- the divisions within the Pankhurst family, with Emmeline the matriarch suddenly becoming an ultra-patriot, abandoning her violent campaign for womens' suffrage, even as her daughter Sylvia clung to her pacifist convictions. Sir John French, one of the generals who seemed unable to grasp the way that technological developments such as the machine gun and barbed wire had transformed the nature of war and who thus oversaw and commanded battles that resulted in unprecedented carnage, had his own cross to bear: his elder sister, Charlotte Despard, was a vehement critic of the conflict at home. Hochschild puts forth both sides with tremendous empathy, telling of the loss of Rudyard Kipling's son in battle and Kipling's wrenching grief and unshaken support for the war, as well as the fate of conscientious objectors who were shipped overseas to the front lines (against government policy) to serve in the ranks, and who faced being court-martialed and shot if they refused to pick up their rifles.

While the war was a long and complex conflict, stretching literally around the world, Hochschild's narrative is both easily digestible and makes the Great War comprehensible on a basic level. It doesn't purport to be a comprehensive survey of all the fronts and all the battles -- there is little here about the Galician front, the battle of Jutland or other naval conflicts, for instance, and there is a definite bias toward the experiences of war in the trenches of the Western front, from Flanders to Alsace-Lorraine. What is it is, however, is a book that will give even a reader who isn't familiar with the war an overview of its causes and major events, even as it prods them to think about the nature of war itself.

World War One changed the world -- it accelerated technological developments, transformed societies around the world, and laid the groundwork for subsequent conflicts that endure to this day in the Middle East. It did NOT end all wars, but it did make the question of whether war can be considered as valid a means of pursuing a nation's self interest as it was in the 16th or 17th centuries a legitimate one. Hochschild has done a brilliant job exploring the complex moral issues that surrounded that debate, without ever lapsing into platitudes or polemics.

I first received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley; I liked it so much that I ended up purchasing my own hardcover copy as soon as the book was published. Highly recommended.

Some folks have asked me recently to recommend other books about World War I. There are a lot of broad histories, each with their various strengths and weaknesses, by authors such as John Keegan, Hew Strachan and G.J. Meyer. Later this year, I'll be reading some first-hand accounts, such as Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. But here's a list of my personal favorites, each of which sheds light on the issues surrounding the war or what flowed from it, in more esoteric ways, in much the same way Hochschild's book did.
  • The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell ***** is a magisterial look at the way that the war transformed society and culture. An emphasis on the Western Front.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain ***** is a memoir from the "home front" in England, written by a woman who lost loved ones and then went on to nurse in the war. Seminal.
  • Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins ****1/2 takes a look at the cultural and social environment leading up to the war (it starts with the cacophany of the Stravinsky ballet of the title) and looks at the world that emerged from the other end, including art work by Kathe Kollwitz. 
  • Death's Men by Dennis Winter ****1/2 is made up of first hand memoirs or contemporaneous accounts from the trenches.
  • Back to the Front by Stephen O'Shea ****1/2 is the story of one man's walking tour (circa early 90s) along the trenches of the 1914-1918 war, from Flanders to the Alsation front.
  • The Englishman's Daughter by Ben Macintyre **** tells what it was like on the other side of the trenches, in the occupied zones of France and Belgium, by looking at the experience of some hidden Allied soldiers who were eventually betrayed by villagers to the Germans. 
  • The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer **** is the story of trying to come to grips with the cost of war, and the "memorial industry" that sprang up. 
This is far from comprehensive; indeed, it probably focuses too heavily on the Western front. But then, my summer job in high school was to work as a tour guide in the underground tunnel system at Vimy Ridge (site of a Canadian victory in April 1917), so perhaps I'm biased... 

Monday, June 13, 2011

"A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war"

That was John F. Kennedy's verdict on the prolonged foreign policy crisis of 1961 surrounding the status of Berlin, still in limbo 15 years after the end of the Second World War, which had left both the city and Germany itself split into rival factions that gave dramatic shape to the Cold War confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the beginning of 1961, the year that Fred Kempe chronicles so painstakingly in this excellent diplomatic, political and social history, it was fairly straightforward for residents of Soviet-occupied East Berlin to cross into West Berlin, made up of the British, French and American sectors. So straightforward, in fact, that thousands of refugees -- including the young and able-bodied that East Germany's new Communist leaders needed to stay put -- were using Berlin as a way to simply walk across the border and take refuge in the West. East Germans may not have had free elections, but they were exercising their right to vote with their feet and fleeing at an ever-faster rate.

As this book opens, Ullbricht, the East German leader, is determined to halt this flow and enlists Khruschev, himself fed up with the need to subsidize the ailing German economy. On the other side of any negotiations about Berlin's status was Kennedy, just elected, who seemingly has never encountered a figure of importance whom he couldn't charm or a problem that was truly intractable. He saw Berlin as a sideshow at the time of his inauguration; for Khruschev, it was clear that the city was the most dangerous place in the world.

Kempe's chronicle of the events of 1961, which culminated in the building of a wall that would divide the city for nearly three decades, is a delicate balancing act. Just when the risk that the reader might bog down in too much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing reached perilous levels, he injects a short three- or four-page tale focusing on a particular character whose life was affected by the division of the country and the city. These examples of how real lives were brutally affected by the great power talks were well chosen and force the reader to stop and remember the thousands of individual tragedies that preceded and followed the wall's construction. This isn't just a diplomatic history -- although it's that par excellence -- it's the story of real-world confrontation, misunderstandings, mistakes and missteps. Many of these were on the part of Kennedy, Kempe points out: while Khruschev may have looked like a buffoon to Americans when he slammed his shoe on the rostrum at the UN to win attention, he was a wily street fighter whom Kennedy was ill-prepared to confront. For his part, Kennedy may have been smart as a whip, but as Dean Acheson wryly remarked (and Kempe pointedly quotes), "brains are no substitute for judgment." The Bay of Pigs debacle, followed by a disastrous performance at the Vienna summit, put Kennedy at a diplomatic disadvantage that Kempe points out the Soviet leader ruthlessly exploited in 1961 in Berlin.

This probably won't be a book for all readers. It's a hefty tome, with 502 pages of text that require close scrutiny. On the other hand, it's been a long time since I've read a book about the Cold War years that engaged me as much as this one did. I grew up in a world where the Berlin Wall was simply a fact of life (I was born months after its construction; educated at schools in a rigidly divided Europe and honestly had little hope of seeing anything different) and it was fascinating to realize that while we may now see this as a simpler era -- one easily identifiable enemy, taking the shape of a nation state -- at the time policymakers were grappling with the unknowns of their situation in the same way they do today. It's also a sharp reminder that the process of making policy isn't simply a matter of what seems logical or wise, but what is politically expedient or what is dictated by the personalities and biases of the policymakers and the information they have at their disposal. (After all, Kennedy himself, lounging in a bathtub in Paris, commented that bickering over the state of Berlin when Germany would never be reunified anyway, was a bit of a foolish pastime.)

Before the postmortem reputation of Kennedy the statesman took hold and was fostered energetically by his circle, there was this Kennedy -- the man out of his depth in the aggressive games of power politics being played on a global stage. Read this book to understand how that shaped the world that many of us lived in in the decades that followed. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the personalities, the era, the issues or diplomatic history in general.

Full disclosure: While the author and I worked for the same publication in Europe for a few years in the late 90s, neither he or his publishers contacted me with respect to this book, or provided a copy for review.

Laurie Colwin -- In the Kitchen?

What happens when one of your favorite novelists/short story writers, with a wicked ability to observe and comment wryly on human foibles, takes up her pen to write about food and cooking? If you're me, you reluctantly confess that you have been lazy for far too long, and make a firm and binding resolution to get back in the kitchen, pronto, and to stop relying on cheeses and crackers and takeout.

And when I'm there, I'm going to be relying on the recipes in this book for feel-good, straightforward meals ranging from baked eggs and shepherd's pie to myriad creative ways to tackle vegetables and what to do with chicken even when you think you're about to grow feathers and start to cluck, you're so bored by the bird. I may even waive my no-chocolate mantra to try out the chocolate pudding recipe...

In short, essay-like chapters, Colwin (who died suddenly in 1992 from a heart attack) rejoices in tastes and textures, flavors and the very experience of putting together a delicious meal. This isn't a fancy cookbook, but rather a series of encounters between one woman and the food she prepares for herself, her friends and her loved ones. Colwin is often deadpan funny, lurking in the background instead is one woman's encounters with preparing food for herself and those she loves. Her observations are sometimes deadpan funny, such as her discussions about the wide array of vegetarians she has encountered. Some, she reports, describe themselves as vegetarians when "they mean they do not eat red meat, leading you to realize that for some people, chicken is a vegetable." She writes about feeding picky people, dinner party guests, vast quantities of homeless people, and trying to impress boyfriends; even something as simple as scrambled eggs gets its moment in the sun here. (Of these, she reports, "almost anyone can turn out fairly decent ones, and with a little work, really disgusting ones can be provided.")

This isn't going back to the library until I've combed through it and copied out the recipes; meanwhile, I'm going to order up the sequel, published posthumously. (More Home Cooking) Onto my favorite books of the year list this goes; I wouldn't have thought I'd be sticking a book about food there, but then this is a book about food by LAURIE COLWIN, for heaven's sake, and I should have realized I'd end up awarding it 4.7 stars; her short story collections are unequivocally 5-star books.