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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Living in "The Memory Palace" -- Review and a Giveaway!

The author of The Memory Palace really isn't named Mira Bartok -- that's the name she chose to live under in order to escape what amounted to harassment from her schizophrenic mother, a highly gifted by highly troubled woman who ended up living on the streets, in contact with her children only via a post office box. It isn't until Norma is dying that she, Mira and Mira's sister are reconciled -- and Mira begins to revisit her childhood, trying to understand how and why she could reach the point where effectively abandoning her mother became the only rational choice.

As anyone who has followed my reading on this blog or elsewhere knows, I'm no fan of memoirs. Far too many of these things are designed to make their authors look like heroic survivors of some kind of bizarre trauma, and come across to the reader (or at least, this reader!) as both self-aggrandizing and self-pitying. Wandering through BookExpo in May 2010, I ended up chatting with a publicist for Bartok's publisher, who urged me to run out and buy a copy of the book as soon as it was published early this year. Being an obedient kinda person (well, sometimes...) I did as I was told, however warily -- and then discovered a remarkable memoir that acquired a position on my "top books of the year" list.  Bartok could have written a "poor, poor pitiful me" book -- and certainly had plenty of material to draw on. Instead, what she produced is an elegant and beautiful narrative, filled with a kind of poignant sadness.

What made this book distinctive? Well, let's start with Bartok's tone. She recounts her childhood history, including an occasion during which her mother attacked her with a broken bottle and cut her throat, with what I can only describe as a kind of dispassionate eloquence. You, the reader, feel Bartok's pain -- not just the physical pain of the assault but the emotional pain of not being able to rely on and trust her mother. Even when the violence wasn't present, Norma's illness left her paranoid and delusional, and her two young daughters end up sharing those fears. Eventually, Mira and her sister break away, travel, build careers and lives for themselves -- but they can never shake free of the early experiences that Bartok captures so vividly.

The way Bartok chose to recount her story also helped it transcend the memoir genre. It's literally a "memoir", a book about memory, from her mother's struggles with memory and reality to Bartok's own battle to regain and cling on to memories of her life, including her mother. She adopts an old technique, from which the title of the book is taken, imagining a memory palace, a place filled with objects that are tied to specific memories. Wandering through that palace, she can tap into the memories at will. Some of those memories are painful, but despite that Bartok is careful to portray her mother's reality as well as her own, quoting liberally from journals and letters, and marveling over the disparate objects from her dysfunctional childhood that she finds squirreled away in a storage locker.

How could a child deny her mother for nearly two decades? Read this book, and your question might change in nature. How, rather, does a child who endured such a difficult youth and adolescence find the strength and wisdom and compassion to return and re-evaluate those years? That's what Bartok has done, in admirable fashion. The result isn't always easy to read or comfortable, but it's emotionally honest, beautifully recommended and, by me, at least, highly recommended.


The best news of all is that, thanks to the publishers, I have one copy of the new paperback edition of this book (just out today) to give away to a lucky follower, chosen at random. To win, either comment below or send me an e-mail at UncommonReading@gmail.com, telling all of us (or just me) what books have made you reconsider genres that you'd previously felt uninterested in or alienated by -- and confirming that you're a follower of this blog. I'll pick one winner from all the e-mails and posts on Friday at midnight!


Courtesy of the publishers, here are some excerpts from a Q&A with the author of The Memory Palace. If this doesn't convince you that this is a book you should read, well, there's no hope...

Q: Describe how you came to title this book The Memory Palace. Do you feel like writing this memoir was a memory palace in itself? How did you put together the bits and pieces until they made a more sensible whole for you?
A: I originally thought of structuring this book as a kind of cabinet of curiosities, given my background in museum collections and taxonomy, but then I remembered this ancient Renaissance system of memory recall and bingo—it was perfect. Also, I had been making these pictures for each memory so they all ended up on a giant canvas on my studio wall. And by using the Memory Palace motif as a way to architecturally contain the book, it provided the perfect background to weave in musings about memory itself and the brain. In order to make sense of the whole thing (and not lose my mind in the process!), I created an actual cabinet in my studio, with openings for each chapter. That way, if I wrote something one day or jotted down a note or sketched a picture, I could place it in its drawer (since I probably would forget about it the following day). So in this way, my own creative process was a building of a palace—on my wall, in this cabinet, in the book.

Q: This book is a very personal and moving testimony to the turbulent and loving relationship between a mother and daughter. Were there certain aspects of your story you were reluctant to share?  
A: Yes, definitely. I withheld certain things that might have appeared sensational, particularly violent episodes with our grandfather. I’m not a huge fan of misery memoirs, ones that relentlessly describe one terrible thing after another without any self-examination on the author’s part. I wanted to express beauty as well and I also did not want to contribute to the unfortunate stereotype of a violent schizophrenic; statistically, most schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves than others. I also decided against sharing a couple very personal drawings, like the one I did of my mother when she was dying. 

Q: Though this is a story about the lasting bond of parental love, it’s also very much about the unreliability of memory. What message did you most want to convey to readers about these subjects?
A: I never intended to get across any kind of message when I wrote the book. I simply set out to explore the connections that I shared with my mother, nothing more, and I set out to do that through pictures, because I am a visual thinker. But yes, the story of mother-daughter love shines through and for me, I think I came to understand that it is a very primal thing, one that is still difficult for me to explain and understand. With memory, the more I researched the subject and explored my own relationship to memory, especially in the light of living with traumatic brain injury (TBI), the more I found all these arguments about so-called “truth” in memory (and thus, memoir) to be silly. I’m not talking about making up some sensational story so that one can sell a fictional book as a memoir (and you know who I mean!) but rather, the idea that just because one remembers something “clearly,” it has to be true is simply false. Ask any neuroscientist, any forensic psychologist, criminal investigator, etc. Oh, if writers only read a little more science, I’d be so happy! Anyway, I personally think the strongest message in the book is about compassion, and the more times I rewrote the book, the more compassion I discovered within myself.

Q: You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing?
A: I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although I’m sure there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability.

Q: Your memoir is very intense and moving. What do you hope readers will take away from The Memory Palace?
A: I never have an agenda for anything I create. I didn’t write this book to teach anyone a lesson about brain injury or mental illness or the plight of the homeless population. I wrote it because I needed to, and also, I knew it was one hell of a good story. That said, if readers walk away from this book with more empathy for those less fortunate or if they gain a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and the other issues I bring up, then that is the icing on the cake. Like I say in the book, there is a thin line between the world of homelessness and “our” world. And each and every woman out there, trying to survive on the street is someone’s mother, daughter, sister, or friend.  I also hope my friends and family will understand my struggles with living with a brain injury a little bit better. Even after over ten years, most people still don’t get it when I tell them I need to not talk on the phone or see people for a while in order to rest my brain. I think it’s very hard to see someone who looks and sounds normal and accept that there is something seriously wrong. And I certainly hope that friends and family of others living with TBI, as well as those living with other invisible disabilities, such as Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, etc., will be more understanding toward their loved ones. And last but not least, I hope that, even though I revealed some very dark things about her, my mother’s memory is honored in some way, and that readers will go away with the feeling that she was a beautiful, gifted, and extraordinary human being. And the best thing is, the shelter that she lived in the last three years of her life has recently been renamed in her honor. It is now a bright, shiny new facility called The Norma Herr Women’s Center! I am now working with the shelter to hopefully raise money to create a community garden near the shelter for the women there to grow their own food.  How is that for a happy ending?

Q: You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing?
A: I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although I’m sure there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability.

Q: How has it been sharing your story with others?
A: It’s been quite surprising. I had no idea this story would impact others the way it has. I am extremely moved when people come up to me after a reading with tears in their eyes, telling me that they have a mentally ill family member or they themselves have a brain injury. I am particularly happy when people tell me that the story inspired them and also challenged their assumptions about those less fortunate than themselves. And I am also quite pleased when someone gets the dark humor that comes up from time to time in the book. Believe or not, some passages are actually funny. As my grandma used to say, “Ya gotta laugh to stop from crying!”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

“In Russia … there are only crime stories.”

Nick Platt moved to Moscow in order to break out of the rut of his existence in England, feeling himself falling into the "thirtysomething zone of disappointment, the time when momentum and ambition start to fade"; it doesn't hurt that his law firm promises him that if he does well structuring client deals in the wild East, flush with oligarchical cash, he'll become a partner more rapidly: when Snowdrops by A.D. Miller opens, it's clear that something has gone very wrong indeed with that plan, but not why.

Somewhere along the line, in his quest to leave behind his boring existence and live for the day as do the Russians who surround him, Nick crosses the line to become the kind of individual he had never dreamed of. The nature of that betrayal becomes clear to the reader of this excellent debut novel only slowly; the story unfolds as a written confession by Nick to an unnamed woman back in England whom he intends to marry. At the beginning, we know that there is a death coming, but we don't know whose, or what Nick's role in it may have been. All we know is that as the final winter of his Moscow sojurn begins, Nick is edging closer by the day to some kind of unforgivable crime or betrayal, something that will make him just as shady as the corrupt Russians for whom he structures deals during the day and whom he affects to despise. Not surprisingly, it all starts with a woman, or rather, two women, whom he meets by chance in the subway system. Masha and her young sister -- or cousin? -- Katya become his close companions; he allows himself to dream of a future with Masha who, Nick convinces himself, has no ulterior motive in becoming his girlfriend. After all, she isn't pushing him to buy her clothes, jewelry or a trophy pedigree puppy.

Nick's friend Steve, a jaded hard-drinking journalist, tries to sound the alarm bell. In Russia, he warns Nick, there are no business stories or even political stories. There aren't even any love stories. In Russia, he cautions Nick, everything becomes a crime story. But Nick is in no mood to listen. He's too busy crafting a project finance deal for a rather odd character known as the Cossack, who may be an oligarch or may be a member of the FSB, Russia's secret police. But everyone has a vested interested in seeing the deal go through, so why ask too many tough questions? And then Masha and Katya ask them to help their aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, an elderly survivor of the siege of Leningrad, swap her apartment in a prime location in downtown Moscow for something more modern in the still-rural outskirts. Bit by bit, Nick finds himself blinding himself to all that he doesn't know -- and doesn't want to know -- about the various deals in which he's playing an increasingly important role. As the winter becomes fiercer and the snow masks the physical ugliness of Moscow, Nick is able to blind himself to the realities of his situation but when the snow melts to reveal ugly truths -- including a corpse -- he can no longer avoid acknowledging what the winter's events have shown about his own character, about his lack of both courage and morality.

This is an extraordinarily good first novel, and it's no surprise to me that it has found its way onto the longlist for the Man Booker Prize this year. Indeed, it's the first of the longlist nominees that I believe is worthy of ending up on the shortlist. Miller -- a correspondent for The Economist who worked in Moscow -- does a superlative job transforming the ugly truth about Russian politics, business and everyday skulduggery as one desperate Russian looks for someone else to take advantage of, into a novel that isn't just fascinating but eloquently written. This isn't just a novel that dresses up current affairs as fiction, or a thriller drawn from the headlines, but rather an excellent story about a man forced to confront the consequences of his reluctance to ask questions about things that seem too good to be true. Yes, the reader is always a step ahead of Nick in the way that the novel is structured, but that doesn't spoil the tension: while I knew the scams would claim victims and that Nick would be an indirect casualty, the nature of the crimes and the way Miller brings together the various strands of the story were compelling enough to keep me reading.

It helps that Miller can turn his hand to fiction as readily as to news reporting. He handles deftly what someone else might have botched up, drawing parallels between the winter weather and the scams; he draws on his observations of daily life in today's Russia -- the drunken passengers who dance a jig in the aisle of a plane as it lands safely -- while never hammering home in such a way as to holler to the reader "look how well I know this place!" Even the minor-characters are vividly portrayed, including journalist Steve, "one of those lost foreign correspondents that you read about in Graham Greene, a citizen of the republic of cynicism."

I had been wary of this book at first, afraid it would be one of those "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" books written by a former expat who just wants an excuse to write about sexual exploits with young, gorgeous and desperate Russian women, or a so-so thriller. Instead I found a fascinating novel that is now on my best books of the year list. 4.5 stars; recommended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Novel That Will Haunt You Long After You Put it Down

It's been a day or two since I finished reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, one of the novels short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize. Often, when I finish a book and move on to the next one, the one I have completed subsides gently into the background of my mind. But this time, I actually found myself dreaming about Jessie and her world last night -- not a terribly comfortable state of affairs, given the bleak world in which Rogers set her novel and the kind of choices Jessie finds herself making about her life. To me, that says that even if Rogers hasn't quite managed to craft a novel that I think will win the Booker, she's written something chilling and memorable and thus well worth reading. (It's not out in the US as yet, and I don't see a publication date yet, but it's a paperback that you can order from Amazon.co.uk.)

When the novel opens, we meet Jessie, chained by the legs with bicycle chains to stop her running off and doing something -- and we soon discover that it is her father who is restraining her. What could have driven him to such extremes, when it's clear from the narrative that they have an exceptionally strong and close relationship? But the world Jessie and her family live in is a crumbling one; an act of bioterrorism has led to a new disease, MDS, that afflicts any woman who becomes pregnant -- kind of a horrible combination of AIDS and mad cow disease. The only treatment is for the victim to be "put to sleep"; millions of women are dying. Jessie and all her teenage friends are fitted with Norplant-like devices, but that simply stops them from falling victim to the disease -- it doesn't give them a reason to live. And, being teenagers, that's already a problem. Some become animal rights activists, convinced that the toxic virus is simply another manifestation of man trying to monkey with the natural world; others turn into radical feminists, arguing that the virus is simply another instance of men treating women as objects. Jessie, like many other 16-year-olds, is already looking at the mess her parents' and grandparents' generations have made of the world and reacting with disgust, arguing against a family vacation that will consume carbon or when her father proposes a trip to the seaside in the car.

But her father's lab, along with others scattered around the world, has reached a kind of breakthrough. Scientists have found that after years with no children born -- forcing humans to come face to face with their own sudden extinction, a scenario also explored in The Children of Men by PD James -- that it's possible for young women with MDS to give birth to children after all. The catch is twofold: their children will also be afflicted with the virus, activated on pregnancy, and the women won't survive. These "Sleeping Beauties" are put into induced comas until their children are delivered and then "put to sleep" permanently. The first round of these pregnancies were accidental ones -- young women who became pregnant unaware, in the earliest stages of the epidemic. But now science is making it possible for pre-MDS embryos conceived through IVF and frozen to be immunized and implanted into young women. But the outcome for the "mothers" doesn't change -- they will still die -- and this time the women will need to be volunteers -- and teenagers, since that will boost the odds of success...

You can kind of see where this is heading, I'm sure, and that's not a surprise as it's clear relatively early on that Jessie is fascinated by the idea of making a difference in a world that is going to hell in a handbasket. Could she actually help to save the human race? The author does a good job of exploring what is going on inside her mind -- the mind of a teenager -- and showing the conflict between her and her parents, who are normal people accustomed to ordinary failures and who, like most of us, have long since forfeited their idealism. Rogers sometimes displays a heavy hand in describing the post-MDS world in which Jessie and her friends are coming of age, and too many of the characters are simply walk-on parts, part of the backdrop to the core drama that is the conflict between Jessie and her family. Still, it's a chilling page-turner; if you've read and enjoyed novels like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and are intrigued by "what if" scenarios of the dystopian kind, this is the kind of book that you'll find unforgettable. It's not as well conceived or impeccably structured as Ishiguro's or as The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and if you pause to think about it while you're reading, you'll spot the flaws. But the power of Rogers's tale and Jessie's testimony is that you won't stop -- you'll be swept along by the story. And beware, because it's likely to haunt you for days.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mystery Monday: A Return to Three Pines

I should confess, immediately, that I'm not a member of the Three Pines cult. I wasn't one of the hundreds of fans who swarmed the publisher's booth at BEA (BookExpo) back in May in order to get their hands on an advance review copy of A Trick of the Light, the newest Louise Penny mystery featuring Quebec detective Armand Gamache and his team along with the quirky or downright eccentric residents of the fictional Three Pines, the township left off all the provincial maps. Nonetheless, I did request a copy of the ARC from Amazon's Vine program last month, mostly because I found Bury Your Dead, the last episode in Gamache's adventures, to be particularly appealing, perhaps because it was largely set in Quebec City and because it featured a mystery surrounding the province's founder, Samuel de Champlain, and the endless conflict between Anglophone and Francophone residents of Quebec.

The good news about the latest Three Pines mystery -- beyond the fact that fanatics now only have two weeks to wait until publication day -- is that rabid fans will find it contains all their favorite features. It is largely set in Three Pines itself; Ruth Zardo, the obnoxious and cynical poet, is as curmudgeonly as ever; Gabri, the plus-sized bistro owner, is as lovable as ever and back to his ebullient self after the resolution of a plot that stretched over the last two books. (I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers!) The big news is that Clara Morrow is finally about to have her day in the sun: when the novel opens, it's at her first solo art show, and everyone is raving about her portraits. But when the scene shifts from the Montreal museum's formal vernissage to the informal party back home in Three Pines, the joy quickly evaporates. Because early the next morning, as her husband returns from picking up papers that contain reviews of Clara's show, he stumbles over a body in their picture-perfect garden -- a body that turns out to belong to one of the few people in the world that Clara could describe as an enemy, or at least as being hostile to her.

It's actually amazing that anyone dares venture into Three Pines at all, really -- the mortality rate, on a per capita basis, must be off the charts by now. Happily, Louise Penny seems to have a sense of humor about setting so many crimes in a tiny village. Gamache and his chief assistant, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, have become so accustomed to the slow pace of life in Three Pines that they have stopped locking their car doors when they arrive to investigate a crime. After all, "people in Three Pines might occasionally take a life, but not a car." As with many of the victims in Louise Penny's mysteries, readers learn about Lillian, the alcoholic art critic who rejoiced not only in puncturing pomposity but in destroying the dreams of aspiring artists only after her death -- she's never really a character except in the eyes of others. The plot itself is a relatively straightforward one: was Lillian's mortal offense one that dates back to the days when she routinely skewered her targets in the press, or did her recent efforts to make amends for her misdeeds trigger an unexpected homicidal urge?

It took me about 100 pages to get into this novel to the extent that I really cared about the outcome, and even then, what ended up grabbing my attention and holding it wasn't the plot, per se, but rather the unfolding of the relationship of Clara and Peter Morrow, and of what is happening to Beauvoir, still trying to recover after the traumatic events chronicled in the previous book. That isn't too surprising, as what Penny is writing are less classical mystery novels, full of clues and red herrings, than novels about an assortment of individuals who are brought together by that murder and the events that lead up to it. In this case, the theme of the book seems to be envy, whether it's Peter's envy of Clara's newfound success, Lillian's envy of the artists she pillories in print, or Beauvoir's envy of the man who has what he has discovered he wants for himself. 

Three Pines afficionados will love this book; if you haven't read the series yet, this is not the place to start as appreciating it depends on your understanding of the Three Pines scenario and its inhabitants. I admit that I find Penny's depiction of the Three Pines gang to be, at best, two-dimensional and sometimes even one dimensional. Peter is envious; Clara is insecure, Ruth is bitter and angry but a softy at heart; Gabri is joyous and full of life, etc. etc. etc. Rarely do they act out of character or surprise me. And I admit to finding Penny's staccato prose style deeply annoying. A particularly egregious example comes when Beauvoir muses to himself about the nature of his job, in comparison to art criticism: "There was nothing subjective about it. No question of good and bad. It wasn’t an issue of perspective or nuance. No shading. Nothing to understand. It just was. Collect the facts. Put them in the right order. Find the killer." While that's an extreme example, at a few points in this book I found the writing -- and in particular incomplete sentences like these - so jarring that I had to put it down and start reading something else.

I admit that I can't understand why anyone would want to go and live in Three Pines (quite aside from its astonishing mortality rate) alongside people who almost always try to do the right thing, who almost without exception are charming or at least fascinating, who all seem wise, witty, interesting and perhaps just a bit too good to be true even as fictional characters. (Even the obnoxious ones are really kind at heart, or at least incredibly talented; the food is always wonderful; the landscape always beautiful, and the criminal elements and their families disappear from one book to the next with hardly a trace.) There's just too much wish fulfillment going on here! Still, while the charm of these books escapes me, the personality of Armand Gamache is more richly developed; that and his quiet insistence on being an ethical cop in an era where corruption and political agendas rule is something that I find very engaging indeed. It was Gamache and his struggle to see justice done that made the last novel in this series the best for me to date. But in this, the seventh book in the series, the focus has shifted back to the ensemble cast at Three Pines and business as usual.  While I found the author's focus on the conflicts in the art world that Clara is discovering for the first time at the age of 50 to be intriguing, they weren't compelling enough to make this more than a novel that is just OK; something that now that I have read, I will probably forget relatively rapidly. I imagine this will be a 5-start book for all Three Pines afficionados; for me, it was about 3.7 stars. True, I'm idly curious to see what happens next to Beavoir and Clara Morrow, but not enough to race out and next year's new book the day it appears. 

Still, wouldn't it be dull if we all loved the same stuff?  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Pair of Brilliant Books About the Perils of Idealism

It's hard enough to find one fabulous and compelling book about a given subject, but to discover two that focus on roughly the same material in a short period of time; and then to have one of those be a novel that's been out for several years and the second a work of narrative non-fiction that won't be published for another month or two -- well, that's astonishing. The fact that the authors are a couple -- Geraldine Brooks (author of March) and Tony Horwitz (author of Midnight Rising) just makes it even more exciting, and left me longing to hang out at their dinner table and just listen to the conversation for, oh, a couple of weeks every year.

I had enjoyed Brooks's non-fiction writing so much that I had somehow convinced myself that her novels couldn't measure up -- yes, despite the Pulitzer that she won for March. Thank God I finally succumbed and picked up this novel, as it has gone straight on to my list of best books of the year. It's that rare bird -- a literary hommage that is neither slavishly devoted to the original (and thus nothing more than a tedious echo) nor untrue to it (making it nothing more than a modern day yarn in crinolines). In it, Brooks fills in the gaps in Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel, Little Women, by telling the story of what happened to their husband and father, Captain March, during his absence from the family. Alcott's March is an idealized paterfamilias; Brooks portrays him as a fallible dreamer forced to confront his own limitations and imperfect nature as he struggles to minister and teach in the midst of war. She does this so well, making him both sympathetic in his idealism and yet frustratingly irritating in his failure to understand the consequences of his inability to be practical or to compromise. At times while reading this novel I admit I sympathized with those March notices giving him "a look of the kind that I had become all too familiar with in the course of my life, a look that combined pity and exasperation."

Brooks's March is a utopian idealist, a vegetarian, someone who struggles to live out his dreams and fails to realize the impact of his dreams on those around him, whether it is his wife and children or the "contraband of war" (aka, the liberated slaves) whom he is sent to teach by the army when he proves demoralizing to the men to whom he had been trying to provide spiritual comfort. In the novel, she effortlessly blends the narrative as we know it from Little Women, giving the reader a plausible back story for Captain March that explains his personality and his actions, and leads right up to the point in Alcott's narrative where Marmee must travel urgently to Washington, where her husband is near death.
I think March blends perfectly with Little Women, although the former is the kind of nuanced book that could only have been written today. Nonetheless, I think it captures the ambivalence of those like March who believe absolutely in emancipation and yet have little idea of how to remake the world in a way that will be as welcoming to black as to white.

Intriguingly, Brooks's husband, Tony Horwitz, has written a non-fiction account of the efforts of another utopian idealist, John Brown, to eliminate the same evils of slavery that Captain March finds so abhorrent. (Indeed, in Brooks's novel, March impoverishes himself supporting some of Brown's projects and campaigns, at least in part to win the admiration of Marmee, portrayed in the novel as an even more ardent abolitionist.) But if March has little concept of what an egalitarian society might look like, Horwitz shows us that John Brown was one of the few abolitionists of his time who didn't just believe in wiping slavery from the face of the earth but acted in a truly egalitarian manner; he was, it seems, color-blind in a way that is still too rare today.

Horwitz's chronicle of events leading up to the doomed insurrection at Harper's Ferry is compelling, reminding us of the context in which he acted. Too often, looking aback at the Civil War, we forget that up until the time he and his tiny band of followers resorted to violence, the status quo was accepted, however reluctantly, across much of the North. Any conflict about slavery was largely confined to the issue of whether it would be allowed to spread to new territories and states in the West -- a conflict in which Brown participated and where his family experienced losses of their own. Arguably, John Brown's failure at Harper's Ferry paved the way for Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of the southern states, civil war and -- ultimately -- abolition.

Was Brown a madman? A monomaniac? Or a Messiah? Horwitz deals only tangentially with those questions, chronicling his life and experiences right up until his final days but letting readers draw their own conclusions. What I found more compelling about this book was Horwitz's ability to knit together not only Brown's tale but that of his companions at Harper's Ferry -- some of his sons, other idealists, drifters, free African-Americans and escaped slaves -- an oddball assortment who tried to force America to live up to the ideals enshrined in its own constitution and other founding documents. When the climax arrives and Brown's small troupe marches on Harper's Ferry, this becomes a book that is absolutely impossible to put down until the final outcome becomes clear. Even then, the final pages hold a poignant message, as Horwitz documents the link between one of John Brown's raiders and African-American poet Langston Hughes.

This is a more straightforward historical narrative than Horwitz has crafted to date -- most of his prior books have featured himself as a character, whether it's following in the footsteps of Captain Cook or becoming a Civil War re-enactor for Confederates in the Attic. He emerges as a thoughtful and articulate historian, who has crafted an impressive and immensely readable chronicle of John Brown, the history of slavery in the fledgling United States and -- above all -- the deserved return to the spotlight of all those who made possible the Harper's Ferry crusade, from financial supporters in Boston to the motley crew in the Virginia farmhouse waiting for the sign to risk their lives in support of an ideal. In the years to come, millions more men would do just that, most with far less pure motives, and I finished this impressive book wondering what John Brown would have made of the world that followed the Civil War, Reconstruction and, tragically, the rise of "Jim Crow" in the South.

I'd recommend both books very highly indeed; while you're waiting for Midnight Rising to appear in bookstores and libraries (it's due out October 25), go check out March and read or re-read it. They fit together in a way that is almost eerie, as Horwitz's imagined version of Captain March struggles to implement the ideals of the real John Brown. Certainly I found reading the novel made the history richer -- a tribute to Brooks's story-telling ability. I'm giving both books 4.6 stars.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of Midnight Rising from Amazon.com as part of its Amazon Vine program.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Story of a Boy and a Bear -- and an Unbearable Loss

When Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen opens, it's the summer of 1980, and Letty is driving north to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with her three children, Georgiana, Alba and Jamie, but without her husband, Nicky. It takes only a few short chapters for the reader to learn that Nicky is dead -- just how he died, however, is the puzzle around which this novel ostensibly revolves.

But while Nicky's death, and the context for it, may make this sound like a mystery novel, it really isn't. Instead, it's the story of how terrible grief devastates families, driving members apart. Letty fears her husband has killed himself, or that his death wasn't an accident, and retreats into herself, leaving her children to cope on their own. Georgie is tormented by memories of a trip to Berlin with her father shortly before his death, a trip that MI-6 agents later interrogated her about at their home in Bonn. Alba is just angry at everyone, but especially Jamie, the youngest of the clan, for what she views as his simple-mindedness and lack of subtlety. But Jamie, who struggles with learning disabilities of some kind as well as incredibly literal mind (when his sister tells him sarcastically to look up Heaven in the Yellow Pages, he does just that -- and shows up on the door of a thinly-disguised brothel searching for his father) simply won't believe his father his dead. Perhaps he's off somewhere, on a secret mission -- after all, hadn't everyone told him that his father was "lost", and wasn't he really a spy?

Over the course of their summer at the family home in the Hebrides, all four survivors must find a way to cope and move on. Their conflicts are set against the backdrop of life in the still-remote community, under increasing siege from the modern world, and their memories of the diplomatic world that they have left behind them. And in the background, there is the bear: escaped from its owner, the grizzly has taken refuge in a cave. Jamie becomes increasingly fixated on finding the bear, associating it closely with his father. Is it possible that the spirit of the lost bear and his lost father could somehow combine...?

This is a beautifully-written novel, one that captures the emotional impact of a devastating loss and the uncertainties of childhood and adolescence without a false note anywhere. Jamie, in particular, is a heartbreaking character: the adults in his world don't understand him; Alba and his peers bully him ruthlessly and yet his insights and thoughts are clear and simple. The climax, in which Pollen brings together the multiple threads of the plot, offering a solution to the mystery of the bear and the mystery of Nicky's death, may feel contrived, but only when looking back on it after finishing the book. At the time, it just feels like the only proper way to wrap up the novel.

I devoured this book, one page after another, and was bitterly disappointed when I finished -- but only because I didn't have more to read. An impressive novel, crafted from the author's own knowledge of the Hebrides and the real-life escape of a bear the same summer in which the novel is set. I'll be looking out for more novels by Bella Pollen, and recommend this one whole-heartedly. I wouldn't go so far as to call this Literature with a capital "L", but it's an above-average novel with a plot and characters that will captivate and haunt you, and I'm giving it 4.6 stars.

Full disclosure: I obtained e-galleys of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.com.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mystery Monday: Overlooked/Underrated Mystery Series To Check Out

I was griping to a friend recently that there are too many mystery writers who keep going and going -- just like little Energizer bunnies with word processing programs -- long past the time when they should have gracefully retired their characters and moved onto something new, different -- something fresh. Take Patricia Cornwell, whose tomes featuring Kay Scarpetta I stopped reading several volumes back; Anne Perry's William Monk and Thomas Pitt mystery series, that I invest in only irregularly; even Daniel Silva's novels (the catalyst for the gripe in question), which have begun to feel very "same-y" of late.

I began to ponder what makes a mystery series really long-lived, for readers beyond just the devoted coteries who would devour every novel written by an author in question even if it ended up winning the Bulwer-Lytton award for most overwrought opening sentence (and continued in the same vein for 850 pages.) My conclusion? It's all about the characters. I want more than just the same old characters, spouting familiar phrases and philosophies, dealing with different crimes and situations. That's what makes Elizabeth George's novels so readable to me still, even though she must have written nearly 20 of them by now. Her half-dozen or so main characters have changed dramatically over the decades; her secondary characters, those caught up in the mysteries she crafts, are equally convincing. True, not all of the books are as successful as her earlier ones and the task gets harder as she keeps going, but she's done a better job of keeping me an engaged and committed reader than, say, Deborah Crombie. True, Crombie's main characters are a major focus of the books, they have married and built a life together over the course of the series, but really, each book is about mixing together a bit of that story with a bit of a crime story, to a predictable formula. It's like realizing you're eating another chocolate cupcake when you're in the mood for something a tad more exciting.

Here's the most recent book in one of the series that I do think augurs to be sustainable over the longer haul -- and a list of some others to keep a keen eye on.

Two for Sorrow is the third in a series of mysteries by Nicola Upson featuring the imagined adventures of real-life crime novelist Josephine Tey (who wrote too few books, rather than too many...) It's been out in the UK for a few months, and hits bookstores here in the US tomorrow -- aka Tuesday, August 9th. And I'd suggest you make a foray to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy, along with An Expert in Murder (Upson's debut) and Angel with Two Faces.

All three novels are set in the London of the mid-1930s and onward, and Upson explores the link between Josephine Tey's real life and imagines the kind of people she knew, convincingly weaving crime stories that deftly showcase links to her own crime novels. (In this one, for instance, there's a character called Miriam Sharpe, a clear reference to Marion Sharpe, the "heroine" of The Franchise Affair, as well as a plot twist related to identity, an amusing one to ponder in light of Tey's later novel, Brat Farrar, some of the plot elements bring to mind Miss Pym Disposes.)  Above all, however, these books -- in particular, her latest -- is a thumping good read, one that comments intelligently on the fate of the lost generation of women left husbandless by the killing fields of the World War I trenches, and how they crafted careers and alternative kinds of relationships for themselves.

Two for Sorrow begins with Upson imagining Tey's effort to imagine the hanging of two condemned baby farmers, found guilty of murdering infants. The 1903 case was a real one, and the fictional Tey has decided to build a story around the aftermath of the crime on those affected by it. But as she pursues her research, with the help of a former teacher, Celia Bannerman, who worked as a wardress at the prison and who guarded one of the women in the days leading up to the execution, she doesn't realize that another crime is brewing -- the brutal murder of a young woman who discovered more than she should have about an outwardly-respectable figure in society. And what is the connection between this most recent crime and the tragedy of the baby farmers, more than three decades earlier, besides the fact that the young woman had been in the same prison that had housed the condemned women many years later and for much more minor offenses?

Upson takes on the complicated plot and never drops a single strand of the narrative; nor does she do violence to either the historical narrative or the needs and wants of today's mystery reader. She reads between the lines of Josephine Tey's life and presents a plausible version of what she was like, of what she wanted, of how she might have approached the kind of mysteries that she wrote about in real life had she encountered them in reality. There's a tremendous amount of convincing detail here; the author not only writes well but has constructed an entire universe in which readers can immerse themselves. Here's one mystery series that I feel has been overlooked and deserves a lot more readers than it may be getting: the books are so good that I can't ever see them as being referred to as merely "the new Nicola Upson".

Some other suggestions of mystery series to peruse if you're bored with the "same old" writers and characters:

  • Paul Johnston: Avoid his dreadful, gory thrillers (the most recent novels) and head off to find the four books featuring Quintilian Dalrymple in an eerie post-Apocalyptic and dystopic Edinburgh. Fascinating and imaginative; the books include Water of Death.
  • Rennie Airth: The author of three widely-spaced books featuring John Madden, survivor of World War I and the trenches, set in 1919, the early 1930s, and the beginning of the end of World War II. Fabulous and complex stories; utterly chilling. Start with The Blood-Dimmed Tide.
  • Check out two novels by a new Canadian author, Inger Ash Wolfe,  The Calling and The Taken. In both, Hazel Micallef finds that rural Ontario isn't such a peaceful place to work as a provincial police inspector...
  • Jill Paton Walsh is best-known in mystery circles for her Lord Peter Wimsey sequels -- I enjoy these, but like her mysteries featuring Imogen Quy, a nurse at a Cambridge college, still more. These are midway between being cozy and being suspense, and combine the best of both worlds, along with offering some great writing. Try The Wyndham Case, A Piece of Justice, The Bad Quarto, etc.
  • Hannah March is one nom de plume for an author who has also penned novels under the name of Jude Morgan. But the Hannah March novels are excellent, set in Georgian England, where the author's amateur sleuth deals with highwaymen and opera singers and meets a young Mozart. I'd rate most of these five stars, and really wish someone would bring them back into print!
  • Ann Cleeves has penned a lot of mysteries, but she isn't that well known on this side of the Atlantic. I hope the Shetland Island quartet -- staring with Raven Black -- will change this. Read the four books in order; it's important! Really compelling.
  • Kate Charles is now working on her second series of clerical mysteries (an English contrast to Julia Spencer-Fleming's novels featuring Rev. Claire Fergusson, for those who have discovered those v. good novels.) I'd recommend the first series, with books like A Drink of Deadly Wine, which will be back in print in mid-August. That said, the first two books in the Callie Anson series are well worth a look, as well. I'm putting my money where my mouth is; discovering the series is now on Kindle, I've just ordered 'em all.
  • Elly Griffiths is a newer author whose first novel, The Crossing Places, was so good that I didn't want to wait for the newest one to be released here and paid an exorbitant amount to have it shipped from the UK. Ruth Galloway is independent, slightly curmudgeonly -- not a classical heroine at all. She loves archaelogy, and that's about it. But Griffiths has some fun with Ruth and her character when a more modern burial is discovered...
  • David Downing has so far written four novels, all named after a different train station in Berlin, that take the reader through the rise and fall of the Third Reich through the eyes of an American journalist living there. In each of the novels, there's an element of a crime and a mystery, but they are as much historical and political novels as anything else. The series starts with Zoo Station; the newest, Lehrter Station, will be out in a few months' time. 
  • A few other names to ponder: Jassy Mackenzie (previously mentioned here); Giles Blunt (a Canadian novelist with five books in his John Cardinal series); Joyce Holms (who wrote the Fizz & Buchanan novels, set in Edinburgh) and Colin Cotterill (whose Dr. Siri continues to bring a smile to my face.)
Something all of these authors have in common, looking back on this list, is that they keep their series manageable in length. Downing has an end planned to his, as does Cotterrill. Jill Paton Walsh has only authored a few Imogen Quy mysteries; there are four featuring Quintilian Dalrymple. In other cases, the series is too new for the author to have fallen in love with his/her own creation or to resort to desperate measures in terms of the plot.

So, tell us all: do you have a favorite "overlooked" mystery series or author you think we should all be reading? Please share!

Just Added to My Shelves:

The books keep arriving, and the work keeps piling up, and the time to read keeps shrinking -- not a good equation! But here are some of the recent additions to my shelves and cyber-shelves:
  • The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi (UK purchase)
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (UK purchase)
  • Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman (LibraryThing Early Reviewers)
  • Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz (Amazon Vine)
  • East of the West by Miroslave Penkov (Kindle purchase)
  • A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (Amazon Vine)
  • Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light (Publisher Galley)
  • Death at the Chateau Bremont by M.L. Longworth (Library)
  • Stealing Rembrandts by Anthony Amore (Library)
  • Rock the Casbah by Robin Wright (Kindle purchase)
  • The Katyn Order by Douglas Jacobson (Library)
  • The Time in Between by Maria Duenas (NetGalley)
  • Lost Kingdom by Julia Flynn Siler (NetGalley)
  • A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaege (NetGalley)
Hoping to get to some of these soon!!! As well as catch up on my other reading...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Giveaway WINNER!

Congratulations to Jaydit, who has scored a brand new pristine copy of "The Sinner's Grand Tour" by Tony Perrottet! Jaydit, please drop me a note with your snail mail address, and it will be wending its way to you in the next few days...

For all the others who entered -- don't worry. There will be more giveaways in future, so just keep an eye on the blog.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Mystery Monday: "Gaza has a special relationship with the dead."

One of the newer mystery series that I have discovered and begun to read is that of British journalist Matt Beynon Rees, who draws on his experience covering the decades-long conflict in the Middle East to develop profoundly human stories about the toll this takes on the ordinary lives of ordinary citizens. His hero, Omar Yussef, is a schoolteacher in his mid-50s, shuns politics -- he is no hero; he simply wants to open the minds of the history students he teaches to possibilities beyond the black-and-white world of the West Bank. Above all, Omar Yussef deplores the cult of violence that has taken over his world -- in Rees's first book, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, Omar muses that "there was such violence even in his girls that it shocked him. No matter how he tried to liberate the minds of Dehaisha's children, there were always many others working still more diligently to enslave them."

I've just finished reading the second in this series of mystery novels, A Grave in Gaza, and I was delighted to find that it's just as rewarding as the first. The focus of both novels isn't the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but rather the toll that conflict is taking on Palestinian society. In his debut, Omar Yussef struggles to rescue a former student and Palestinian Christian, from being lynched as an informer for the Israelis  -- even in the hope of unmasking a murderer and clearing the name of his friend, he can't approach the Israelis themselves. In the second novel, factionalism again rears its head from the very second that Omar Yussef and his UN colleagues enter Gaza on an inspection tour of UN-sponsored schools there. Immediately, they must embark on an effort to save a schoolteacher who has been arrested after he accused the local university of granting degrees in return for money to local policemen. As a sandstorm rages and one of his colleagues is kidnapped by one of the many guerilla factions in Gaza, Omar Yussef must find a way to understand the power struggles underway within Gaza, and their implications for his friends and colleagues. "There is no single, isolated crime in Gaza," a friend warns Omar Yussef. "Each one is linked to many others, you'll see. When you touch one of them, it sets off reverberations that will be heard by powerful people, ruthless people."

Rees does a superb job of delineating and distinguishing the tensions within the Palestinian community. Nor does he shy away from violence or even tragedy, all of which are too much part of the real backdrop in which his fictional characters live; still, even as the body counts climb in the novels, there's an almost bitter awareness that in the circumstances, any other outcome would be unrealistic. Omar Yussef may see himself as a coward -- once imprisoned for his political views in Jordan, he has shied away from any activism since then, fearing a return to jail or torture -- but however fallible he may be, he ends up taking personal risks in order to live up to his sense of himself as being a voice of reason and a human being.

This may not be a mystery series to read if you happen to have very strong views on the state of affairs in the Middle East, regardless of which side you're on: Rees makes clear in his non-fiction book, Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East (published in 2004) that he views the real culprits as those extremists willing and even eager to annihilate opposing points of view. That's the philosophy that serves as the basis for this series of mysteries and for Omar Yussef's rather quixotic efforts to bring a measure of justice, however small, to the unjust society in which he must live. He may fail in some of his efforts, but at least he tries. The result, for mystery fans, is another good series; I'm hoping to read the third and fourth books sometime before the end of the year.