Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is a notable literary achievement that hit the New York Times best-seller list in 1983, the year it was published. The movie hit theaters February this year. Since I hadn’t read the book, I thought I’d see the movie, but it got horrible reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, a friend casually claimed Winter’s Tale as her favorite book. I’d never until that moment heard her make a statement like that about any book, and so the comment hung with me, urging me to consider reading Helprin’s novel; however, it’s a big deal for me to commit to reading a voluminous, long-ago published book, when I need to keep up with reading new publications. But then I saw the movie tie-in edition of the novel and, ever a romantic, that pushed me over the edge into reading this thicker-than-a-bread-loaf book that’s north of 700 pages.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Movie tie-in edition

Let me say right away that the illustration of the movie tie-in falsely gives the impression Winter’s Tale is a love story. It’s not that at all. The illustration showcases merely the beginning, when the Irish burglar and master mechanic Peter Lake breaks into the Manhattan mansion of newspaper publisher Isaac Penn and falls in love with his daughter, Beverly, who’s dying of consumption. Their union ignites the story’s enchanted mood, but it is not the Full Monty of Helprin’s magical fantasy that spans the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century, predominantly in New York City. Suffice it to say, Winter’s Tale comprises several plot lines, and it became the most perfect book for me to read during Lent, leading up to this Easter week of resurrection, because while it is a complex story about many things, at its heart, Winter’s Tale is about defying time and death.

Peter Lake is the central, saving hero in this engrossing story whose ageless reappearance, 85 years after he vanishes into a field of clouds, signals victory over clock-bound time. Other principal characters include Hardesty Marratta, a California man who rejects a phenomenal inheritance to seek “the just city”; Virginia Gamely (who marries Hardesty) and her verbally acrobatic mother Mrs. Gamely, both from the mystical Lake of the Coheeries, where inhabitants live through the cruelest winters; Harry Penn, who takes over his father’s newspaper business; and his managing editor Praeger de Pinto, who becomes a New York City mayor.

Winter's Tale original cover illustration

Original book cover

These and others have large and small roles in a masterfully planned staging of  a mythic New York City; however, the story’s expansive, otherworldly reach extends beyond their roles into a realm of higher forces at work in this life. I can’t imagine any movie coming close to capturing the profound messaging about time, justice, balance, suffering, humility and ultimate purpose. There’s no easy way I could even capture it here. To that point, consider another principal character, Athansor, a magnificent white horse that symbolizes forbearance and triumph. His leaps are so powerful he flies, many times removing Peter Lake from the dangerous, criminal mitts of Pearly Soames, who’s ever after destroying the man who seeks truth. Athansor’s breathtaking presence on the page creates a kind of wonder and hope that’s hard to quantify.

And so I join the many others through the years who’ve read and claimed Winter’s Tale as an extraordinary book. It proved more than worthy of the time away from new releases, consuming me with its sumptuous narrative and embedded wisdom, which includes  this comment made by Mrs. Gamely to her daughter Virginia:

“No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn’t bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn’t teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding. Did I? For, if I did, I was wrong. If you won’t take a chance, then the powers you refuse because you cannot explain them, will, as they say, make a monkey out of you.”

Redeployment by Phil KlayI want to begin with a scene from one of the 12 stories in Phil Klay’s debut to illustrate the collection’s impact when communicating what it’s like to be a soldier and a U.S. Marine. Klay, a Dartmouth graduate, is a former U.S. Marine who served in the Iraq conflict, and so we know his imagined storytelling draws from personal exposure and perhaps experience. All the narrators in Redeployment speak to us in the first person. They are U.S. Marines predominantly in Iraq but also Afghanistan. In this one scene from the title story, Sergeant Price has just returned to civilian life. His wife takes him shopping in the city.

What he sees are windows. Everywhere. People walking past them “like it’s no big deal.” The last time he walked down a city street, it was in Fallujah with heavily armed fellow Marines methodically scanning rooftops and windows for anything out-of-place because in the city “there’s a million places they can kill you from.” In the safe American city, our narrator startles several times, checking for his weapon, but it’s not there. Everything inside him is wired for high alert. His wife gives him clothes to try on in American Eagle Outfitters, and once inside the dressing room, Sgt. Price doesn’t want to come out. In this brief scene, the pressure on a returning soldier to calibrate extremes seizes us with piercing clarity.

In the shortest story, Klay fills the narrative with military acronyms without defining them and so immerses us in the lingo. The technique is powerful, telling less a story than putting us inside the military atmosphere: “EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.”

These U.S. Marines we spend time with in Redeployment wrestle with the honor and thrill of being war heroes and the guilt of their actions. They don’t want people back home to thank them or say they respect them or act like some caring person. They yearn for women but cannot connect to them beyond sexual need. And once out of the war, they live a discrepancy between us and them that’s stressfully noble and heart-rending. One veteran, pressed to tell stories, fabricates details and spins them according to what he thinks the civilian listeners want to hear, until one time he tells the truth, and he never tells another story again.

Klay digs deeply, honestly and convincingly into the inner lives of his men, using a range of narrators — from a solider in psychological operations to one in mortuary affairs; from an artillery gunner to an adjutant; from a military chaplain to a foreign service officer. What they all have in common is  experience in a place that lives and breathes daily violence and defies civilian comprehension, including the dissonant concept of killing that equates to a good day’s work. In one story, soldiers dance naked on a rooftop to incite insurgents to open fire, creating an opportunity for the Marines to fire back and inflate their kill stats.

Redeployment falls under the category of essential storytelling that takes us away from this world and then puts us back in it with a firmer grip on our perception of the Marine combat experience. It’s impressive, enduring fictional truth that’s so effective we know, with our deepest feelings, what lies behind the military chaplain’s statement when he says, “Most Marines are good kids. Really good kids. But it’s like they say, this is a morally bruising battlefield.”

 

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerFew novels capture me as did this one, Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy. To say I couldn’t put it down doesn’t do justice to the ever-present sense of the story that followed me for days. When I wasn’t reading Annihiliation, I was thinking about reading it, spellbound by VanderMeer’s eerie Area X and the biologist who is persistent in her desire to understand it. She is among four women, including an anthropologist, psychologist and surveyor, who comprise the twelfth expedition sent by the Southern Reach, a clandestine government agency, to map the terrain, collect specimens and document the mysteries of this formerly inhabited wilderness. For 30 years, Area X, adjacent to a military base, has been cut off from civilization because of an environmental catastrophe, according to a vague official statement.

As the women hike from the border to the coastal base camp, they experience a pristine, empty landscape and take note of a derelict lighthouse in the distance, a symbol of the old order. And yet, they know something malevolent exists within the Eden-like environment. Members of the second expedition committed suicide. Members of the third shot each other. Members of the eleventh, that included the biologist’s husband, disbanded and returned to their families by unknown means with altered personalities.

On the fourth day, they discover a tunnel — or is it an underground tower? —  that is neither on their maps nor in documents left by their predecessors. Words written in raised, fern-like moss cling to the left wall, churned out by an incomprehensible force from the tunnel’s depths. When the biologist leans close to study the cursive writing, a burst of spores enter her nose and heighten her senses, changing her in ways that provide clarity and a visible brightness.

Bizarre as this sounds, the plot is delivered with such sophisticated storytelling, it doesn’t seem bizarre at all. Instead, the indefinable threat that’s underlying every moment, every action and every page credibly puts us on edge in this concisely written tale of chilling, inexplicable occurrences. In addition, VanderMeer keeps us unsettled with questions about things that don’t make sense. Why does the Southern Reach continue sending expeditions? Why did they lie during training? Why do people keep volunteering to go?

The biologist narrates with a powerful combination of intelligence, curiosity and vulnerability that’s riveting. Her self-contained nature sets her apart from the others, who quickly succumb to the breaking powers of Area X. She enters the lighthouse alone, where she discovers a pile of discarded journals kept by previous expeditions, including one written by her husband. And she plumbs the furthest depths of the tunnel alone and encounters the writer of the words in an experience that is fantastical and complex — an encounter with “the most beautiful, the most terrible thing” she inadequately calls the Crawler.

I rarely care whether or not I read future books in a series, even if I was riveted by the first book. But that’s not true for the Southern Reach Trilogy. I’m impatient for the next installment. I want back into Area X, and I need to find out what’s happening with the biologist. At the end of Annihilation, she makes a decision, and I want to know where it will take her. Also, I want all those other questions answered. I simply have to know.

The three volumes of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy will be published in 2014: Annihilation (out now), Authority (May 2014) and Acceptance (September 2014).

The Bird Skinner by Alice GreenwayWhen I picked up Alice Greenway’s new/second novel The Bird Skinner, I thought I was reading this author for the first time. Turns out, I read her first novel, White Ghost Girls, in 2006, and I didn’t remember that until, researching Greenway’s bibliography, I read a short description of the plot. This kind of literary memory blocking is my first. I may not be able to find a book in my house (including, as of this writing, White Ghost Girls), but I always remember having read the book — until now, when I’ve evidently crossed a line into some kind of literary overload.

How quickly and clearly the plot of White Ghost Girls came back to me, though. It’s a striking, spare and complicated story about two American, teen-aged sisters living in Hong Kong with their distant, lonely mother while their father, a photographer, flies in and out of Vietnam photographing the war. The girls rivalry for their father’s attention when he’s home from his long assignments builds to a shocking and devastating end.

Not just the plot of White Ghost Girls came back to me, however, but the troublesome sense Greenway creates that something tragic will happen. It’s anchored on an incident that takes place in a street market after the girls break loose from their Chinese amah, Ah Bing. Greenway evokes a similar foreboding in The Bird Skinner with ornithologist Jim Kennoway’s World War II memories returning to him. It is 1973, he’s newly retired from Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History and crippled from a leg amputation caused by poor health. Jim arrives at his summer home on an island in Maine to be left alone, drink excessively and forget about his experiences 30 years ago in the Pacific on a remote Solomon Island behind enemy lines.

"White Ghost Girls" by Alice GreenwayHis plans for isolation and forgetfulness are crushed by the arrival of a young woman named Cadillac from that very Solomon Island. She is the daughter of Tosca Baketi, who, when he was 16 years old, assisted Jim in his observations of the Japanese for U.S. Navy Intelligence. He also assisted Jim off-hours, collecting and studying island birds. Tosca sends Cadillac to Jim because she needs a place to stay for the remaining summer months before she enters Yale Medical School. One day, she lays a golden whistler on Jim’s desk, a bird from her home that’s been artfully skinned and stuffed by her father, who learned the trade from Jim.

Alice Greenway writes with superb command of her prose, delivering illustrative details about the birding life, the drama of war and the challenges of coping with an amputation. The story is deeply affecting, as we’re drawn into childhood incidents about Jim’s beginnings with birds and his relationship with his cruel, wealthy grandfather — and as we’re drawn into Jim’s adult years during the war and later, when he’s become an angry, bitter person.

Jim’s museum colleagues admire his work but struggle to understand him. Composing a profile about Jim due to his retirement, they discover a letter that reveals Jim was almost court-martialed for a war crime, which begins to reveal why he became so distant and angry. It’s one of several mysteries about this powerful character that make The Bird Skinner so good.

And it is good, sometimes compulsively, but there’s a problem in the wide swings in time and place. Even though chapter titles anchor us with dates and locations, the erratic jostling between the story’s many settings fragment the emotional effect. Too soon we’re ripped away from our feelings in one place and time to be taken to another.

The girl’s presence doesn’t develop into anything. It’s a catalyst for Jim’s remembering the past, and it works well as a structural element that is neither forced nor gratuitous. What makes this element effective is Cadillac’s innocence and gracefulness standing separate from the grouchy, emotionally burdened Jim, subtly reminding us – especially in the sad ending – that in a world of horror and disappointment, life still proves to create beauty and offer hope.

Have you seen me?

February 13, 2014

Sea of Hooks by Lindsay HillI recently had the honor of speaking to a local organization about books, changes in the publishing industry and recommended readings. At the heart of what I spoke about was my belief that the greatest threat to the book is not e-readers, as so many devotees of the hard-bound worry, rather the decline of the independent bookstore as the main seller of our books. Because of that decline — and, in fact, loss in the majority of U.S. cities — readers no longer can browse tables of new books as well as classics and those “not to be missed” curated by knowledgeable booksellers. They therefore are not aware of an abundance of good reading, especially among literary novels, such as Lindsay Hill’s Sea of Hooks. This is a marvelous, uniquely told story that reads like a novel yet emotionally renders like a poem. I held it up to the group and asked how many were aware of it. No one raised a hand.

It took Mr. Hill 20 years to write Sea of Hooks that was listed by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the top ten books in 2013 and also as the most underrated book of 2013. The narrative is written in sectioned paragraphs, sentences and fragments with titles, and it must be read in long sittings (not in brief sneak reads) for the full effect of the protagonist’s emotional coming of age in San Francisco during the 1960s. Accompanying this story of youth is the story of his trip to Bhutan as an adult where he comes to grips with his childhood trauma. This is an exceptional book to be read not simply for story but its poetry, for herein is an imaginative viewpoint, thought-provoking insight and stunning one-liners. An example:

“You will never know the cost of the hours you have taken, their true price, or the size of the cyclone that delivered them – poured them across the sieve of your outstretched hands.”

Two other excellent books that remind me of why we need independent booksellers as the fulcrum to book-selling — because no one also raised a hand for the second one, and the first one should not be missed:

The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver

The End of the Point by Elizabeht Graver

This novel remains with me long after the last page for its poignant message about a summer home that lies at the heart of an ordinary East Coast family. It will speak most to those who know the lifelong pull of a childhood home or location that remains a physical and emotional haven of safety as time charges forward. That place in this fifth fictional book by Elizabeth Graver is Ashaunt Point, the Porter family’s summer home on the rocky shore of Buzzards Bay, Mass. It begins in 1942, when soldiers guard the coastline and engage with the family, and then follows members of the Porter family and their relationship to Ashaunt through the 20th century to 1999.  Readers who demand intrigue and sensation in their books step aside – The End of the Point engages with its quiet beauty and abiding sense of need among its characters for Ashaunt’s legacy.

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

I have not yet read this novel but mention it here because I know from all I’ve read about it – the consistent reactions of praise and “must read;” and one blogger’s description as “so much wow” – I can safely say it’s a literary novel not to be missed. It’s the one I’ve regretted not reading when it was first published last August and hope to catch it when it comes out in paperback this coming May. Like Lindsay Hill, Ms. Yanagihara spent 20 years writing this novel about a doctor whose anthropological discoveries concerning a lost tribe on a South Pacific island wins him the Nobel Prize but also brings devastating consequences to his life back in the United States.

Kirkus Reviews writes, “Yanagihara presents a cautionary tale about what can happen when Western arrogance meets primeval culture.”
The U.K.’s Independent writes, “This is an absorbing, intelligent and uncompromising novel which beguiles and unnerves.”
Publisher’s Weekly listed The People in the Trees as one of the 10 best books in 2013.

 

Norwegian by NightYou wouldn’t immediately conclude Norwegian by Night is a crime novel by the cover illustration. That little boy in his Viking hat is too endearing. And yet, he’s a child on the run in Oslo, Norway, protected by American Jew, former Marine and Korean War vet, 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz – the man standing beside him, who made the hat.

While murder and revenge fuel the plot, at the book’s heart is a moving story about an old man, a recent widower, haunted by his Korean War experiences and his son’s death in the Vietnam War. Sheldon engages in imagined conversations with his son Saul as well as with other dead persons: Mario, who soldiered with Sheldon during the Korean War and Bill, a pawn shop owner in New York City where Sheldon spent his career repairing watches.

Sheldon has recently moved to land of the trolls (his label) to live with his grand-daughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband, Lars, a video game developer. Rhea, concerned for her grandfather’s loneliness and dementia, convinced him to move in with her. One day, alone in the apartment, Sheldon opens the door to a distressed Serbian neighbor and her six-year-old son. They need to hide from the son’s violent father, who raped the woman when she lived in Kosovo, a victim of the Serbian and Kosovo Albanian conflict. The Kosovar has come to Norway to get his son, conceived during the rape. Sheldon and the boy, hiding in a closet, hear him murder the woman.

Sheldon grasps his protective responsibility with the courage of someone who has nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s a momentous opportunity for this proud veteran who encouraged his son to fight for America and suffers the guilt of his death. Now, here is a chance to save someone else’s son.  Sheldon steals and lies and thieves his way through Oslo to get the boy he calls Paul to safety.  Steadfast, acerbic Oslo police chief Sigrid Ødegård and her police force look for the missing old man and boy, as do men from Kosovo, wanting to abduct the boy.

Half the fun in this novel is the topic of Sheldon’s “debatable” dementia. This octogenarian argues he’s not losing his memory, rather finding coherence in a past that’s rushing in unbidden during his last years, demanding reason and closure. Author Derek B. Miller portrays him as spunky, outspoken, often belligerent, disrespectful and fearless, rather than old and senile. Indeed, Sheldon with his Penthouse coffee mug, Danielle Steel reading selection and suspicion of North Koreans stalking his every move warrants a place in the Colorful Characters Hall of Fame.

As for that Viking hat sported by the boy on the book’s cover, when the old man places it on Paul’s head and puts him in front of a mirror, Sheldon exclaims: “‘Paul the Viking! Paul the Completely Disguised Albanian Kid Who Is Not on the Run Through the Norwegian Hinterland with an Old Fool. What do you think?’” Kicker is, the boy doesn’t speak English, and Sheldon doesn’t speak Norwegian.

There’s a final showdown at Rhea and Lars’ summer cabin in the woods, where Sheldon seeks safety. Here he employs military tactics he learned during his soldiering days and lives up to his spectacular personality. The ending is very satisfying, as is Norwegian by Night altogether, delving into issues that concern aging and memory, war crimes and revenge – two themes Derek B. Miller integrates with savvy, dry wit and serious questions into an unsettling, shocking crime story.

Signed copy of Norwegian by Night

Two novels to anticipate

January 7, 2014

What to read in the New Year? Here are two novels on my radar screen that look particularly good.

"Orfeo" by Richard PowersOrfeo by Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ new novel, set to release the week of January 19, is likely on many anticipated lists – Powers won the 2006 National Book Award for The Echo Maker and is a critically acclaimed author with a cult following. In Orfeo, composer protagonist 70-year-old Peter Els ends up on the lam when Homeland Security discovers his home-based biochemical engineering lab, where Peter pursues an innocent hobby. His fugitive status gains him recognition as the “Bioterrorist Bach.” The story looks back through his life as he visits people he once knew. Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, writes:

“The earmarks of the renowned novelist’s work are here—the impressive intellect, the patterns connecting music and science and so much else, the classical grounding of the narrative—but rarely have his novels been so tightly focused and emotionally compelling.”

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew QuickThe Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

The publisher’s description of The Good Luck of Right Now begins: “For thirty-eight years, Bartholomew Neil has lived with his mother. When she gets sick and dies, he has no idea how to be on his own. His redheaded grief counselor, Wendy, says he needs to find his flock and leave the nest. But how does a man whose whole life has been grounded in his mom, Saturday mass, and the library learn how to fly?”

The answer lies in writing to actor Richard Gere, whose “Free Tibet” letter Bartholomew finds in his mother’s underwear drawer.  Adjectives when writing about the book include “offbeat gem” (Booklist), “quirky coming-of-age story” (Publisher’s Weekly) and “quirky, feel-good fiction” (Kirkus Reviews). Maybe my attention on this novel is overly influenced by the wonderful laughter I experienced watching the dance competition in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” which is based on the book by Quick.(The Silver Linings Playbook is his debut novel.) Could some of that humor lie within his new book? I hope so.

The Good Luck of Right Now is scheduled for release the second week of February.

Collector of Lost ThingsMore than 150 years ago, the flightless Great Auk of the North Atlantic disappeared, doomed to extinction by its gentle nature that made it easily accessible to hunters. When its numbers perilously decreased, museums increased their desire to stuff the unusual bird for their showcases. In Jeremy Page’s enthralling new novel set in 1845, narrator Eliot Saxby, the eponymous collector, says, “I suppose each museum and private collector felt it might be the last opportunity to own one of these birds, or one of their eggs.”

Eliot, a serious, thoughtful naturalist, recounts the time he traveled to an uninhabited island off the coast of Iceland where the last Great Auks were believed to have been seen. His passage on the Amethyst, a trade ship that makes a living by plundering the Arctic region, has been paid for by Englishmen who made a bet about whether or not the bird still exists.

It’s not long before Eliot finds himself in an unnerving situation. The ship is commandeered by a sociopath, Captain Sykes, who embroiders in his spare time, and the reserved, unpredictable first mate, Quinlan French. Also, Eliot shares his passenger status with a flamboyant gentleman hunter named Edward Bletchley and his fragile, beautiful cousin Clara. Eliot is certain Clara is Celeste, a woman he knew and loved 10 years ago, when she was 16 and he was 22, but Clara does not recognize him.

“It occurred to me, in a fleeting moment of total understanding,” Eliot says, “that I was on a journey of several mysteries, some surrounding me and within reach, but others as dark and impenetrable as the ocean beyond the ship.”

I read The Collector of Lost Things deeply engaged in the beautiful writing and exceptional, limited world of a ship where contentious relationships explode and the nautical routines of the three-masted vessel come to life. Page writes poetically and realistically, successfully capturing what it must feel like to know vulnerability in the face of the ice-enclosed sea, empty sky and freezing temperatures.

The aggressive slaughter of Arctic animals, however, came as a shock and proved difficult to read, as Eliot witnesses the Amethyst crew take out walruses, whales and seals for trade and profit. Even so, the cruelty fits the context of the 19th century, when such hunting practices were accepted — the blubber was used for lamp oil; feathers for pillows and ornamentation. The story is not without environmental conscience — Bletchley initially engages joyfully in the shooting of Arctic birds, but then he’s faced with killing a seal that looks at him with its steady, onyx-like, soft eyes. The connection tumbles the opium addicted poseur into unrelenting torment. He feels in his soul the murder of innocent creatures being committed and does not recover.

Audubon's Great Auk

John James Audubon’s drawing of the Great Auk

When the Amethyst arrives at its destination off the coast of Iceland, Eliot experiences tragedy and hope for the Great Auk. So as not to give away the story, I’ll simply say the experience results in an on-board conspiracy between Eliot, Clara and Quinlan. Their secret creates tension, as does the haunting mystery of Eliot and Clara’s past. Both conspiracy and romance drive toward a conclusion one could predict; however, under Page’s talented pen, the story wraps us seductively in the provocative setting, Victorian-era morals and clashing ethics until the end. The Collector of Lost Things is a fascinating, distinctive novel about the past that can haunt us and “mankind’s failure to be anything other than a beast of greed and profit.”

Page writes with authority, knowledge and elegance about the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. His previous, critically acclaimed novel, Sea Change, takes place in the North Sea.

According to National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America, the Great Auk (Penguinus impennis) was the original penguin, after which the penguins of the Southern Hemisphere were named.

Run to Bethlehem

December 20, 2013

For the Time Being_WH AudenTwentieth Century British poet W. H. Auden intended his long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio to be set to music by his friend, British composer Benjamin Britten.  The end product, however, proved to be too long and complex for a musical score, yet a profound poem remained that movingly captured the birth of Christ in its historical and spiritual contexts.

I know poetry is not what many would rush to read, and many probably don’t need one more version of the Christmas story during this season of Advent; however, For the Time Being is especially meaningful because Auden broadens his interpretation to embrace modern-day sins and logic. Indeed, there are references to bars, newspapers, clocks, mirrors and other modern places and objects. And when King Herod enters the picture, struggling with the news of a child being born who is “in some inexplicable manner both God and Man,” he parses the facts like any politically minded leader and self-involved human being in a long speech that ends:

“I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.”

"At the Manger"

For the Time Being begins with dark times on earth and proceeds in sections titled The Annunciation, The Temptation of St. Joseph, The Summons (of the wise men), The Vision of the Shepherds, At the Manger and others, through The Flight Into Egypt – all of the expected, except Auden gives us the inner thoughts, conflicts and feelings of the familiar characters, as well as commentary of an opinionated narrator and watchful chorus. So, for example, we’re not just given the wise men following the star, rather their motivations:

The first wise man sees life filled with liars, and so follows the star to discover how to be truthful now;

The second wise man sees life as always anticipated or remembered, and so follows the star to discover how to be living now;

And the third wise man sees life as overly intellectualized, and so follows the star to discover how to be loving now.

There are some passages in the poem I didn’t understand on the first read, such as the section in which the Biblical, devout Simeon speaks, but there is so much wisdom the poem gave me otherwise, it didn’t matter.

There’s the part where the chorus of angels says to the lowly shepherds:

“Sing Glory to God
And good-will to men,
All, all, all of them.
Run to Bethlehem.”

And the shepherds say:

“Let us run to learn
How to love and run;
Let us run to Love.”

For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio is Auden’s only explicitly religious long poem. The introduction in this new edition published by Princeton University Press, edited by Alan Jacobs, explains the poem’s themes and provides the context of Auden’s life at the time of its creation — a story in itself that provided a powerful platform for a poet who wanted to write about Mary and Joseph, the wise men, angels, shepherds and the Romans when Christ was born.

Merry Christmas.

Two excellent novels

December 4, 2013

If you’re looking for storytelling that will involve you with character complexities, intriguing plots and memorable settings, you’ll find all that here, and more.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

Agnes Magnúsdóttir was a young woman when she became the last person to be executed (publicly beheaded) in Iceland in the early nineteenth century, condemned for murdering Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. She’s given over in protective custody to a farm family of a government official for the months preceding her execution. Agnes’s presence on the farm creates strife and challenge for the parents and two girls who must come to terms with the convict’s sympathetic humanity.

The isolated northern Icelandic landscape invites us into its gorgeous beauty and treacherous reality. The how and why details of the murders unfold as Agnes reveals her story to a visiting novice priest who struggles with knowing how to provide spiritual comfort and hope to a murderess. So, too, we learn of her impoverished life as a landless workmaid leading up to the crime.

The story interchanges between Agnes’s intimate first person inner thoughts and confessions to the priest, and then the objective tension-building third person view of the other characters. Hannah Kent writes with compassionate authority, deeply engaging us in the soul of human love and crime. In the Author’s Note at book’s end, she tells us she has knit together Agnes’s story in Burial Rites based on known and established facts, stating “events have either been drawn directly from the record, or are the result of speculation; they are fictional likelihoods.” This stunning novel entreats insight into how certainty leaves no entry point for the light of truth.

The First of July by Elizabeth SpellerThe First of July by Elizabeth Speller

The title of this novel that drove me to read late into the night comes from the first day of the First World War’s Battle of the Somme. “Once the shelling was over, of the 100,000 British troops who attacked the German lines July 1, 1916, 20,000 were killed and over 40,000 were wounded. It was the single worst day in deaths and casualties in British military history.” (source: PBS.org)

The story begins earlier, in 1913, with the lives of four young men that will be changed by the war and, specifically, the battle – a time when we are introduced to their normal lives as a London store clerk fascinated by bicycles (Frank); a cathedral organist in Gloucester (Benedict); a British entrepreneur in New York City (Harry); and a village boy assisting the local blacksmith and doctor in Corbie, France (Jean-Baptiste).

Chapters are dedicated to each character as the story unfolds. In the beginning, I questioned whether or not I’d be able to remember all their life threads and signature details; however, that concern disappeared quickly – author Elizabeth Speller lures us into caring about each character’s decisions, motives, needs and fate with realism, surprise and emotional gravitas. They are the reason I kept turning the pages, wanting to know their outcomes.

Frank enters the war as a military bicycle messenger; Benedict joins up with his friend Theo, whom he secretly, romantically loves; Harry leaves the safety of America to join his fellow countrymen in battle in the midst of his father’s death and a major inheritance; and Jean-Baptiste joins the army to run from his mother’s shocking affair with the doctor. Speller magically connects the four lives in a way that’s moving and unforgettable as she explores their need for freedom, self-direction, hope, love and life purpose.

As we head into the 100 year anniversary of World War I in 2014, The First of July — captivating in storytelling and elegant in style — deserves a place at the top of the reading list. For this year, 2013, it’s among my year’s favorites.

“Ich bin ein Berliner”

November 20, 2013

Kennedy in Berlin by Ulrich MackPhotojournalist Ulrich Mack worked for the German magazine Quick (which in German means ‘live’ or ‘swift’) during the 1960s. He covered President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s four-day visit to Germany, June 23 to 26, 1963. JFK visited Cologne, Bonn, Hanau, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt and West Berlin in what Kennedy in BerlinMack’s previously unpublished collection of photographs – describes as an unprecedented event that followed a precise protocol.

An exception to what was planned became history in West Berlin, when Kennedy went off script before 450,000 people at Schöneberg City Hall, giving the famous Cold War speech that included the closing line: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner.)

From "Kennedy in Berlin"

The book is organized by city, each introduced by the hourly itinerary and followed by pages filled with Ulrich Mack’s black-and-white photos, including the ticker-tape procession down the main street of West Berlin with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, mayor of Berlin; and his stop at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point at the Berlin Wall between West and East Berlin, where Kennedy stands atop the observation deck. The book contains close to 100 photos selected by Ulrich Mack. Many are of Kennedy walking among massive crowds and passing them in a motorcade.

“They now rejoiced all the more, applauded, waved, pushed, and shoved to see a president who visibly enjoyed basking in the crowd’s adulation. As an aside, it should be noted that the Lincoln Continental that had been flown in was the same car in which Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963.”

From "Kennedy in Berlin"

Ulrich Mack got close enough to capture Kennedy’s relaxed, engaged expressions, his charismatic smile, as well as portraits of the people of the young Federal Republic of Germany hoping to glimpse the most powerful man in the world.

Photos of officials standing with Kennedy lack their identification, which is mildly frustrating.

From "Kennedy in Berlin"

Many books have been published this year in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. This book captures four famous days that occurred five months prior to that tragic event. With the secret service in their dark sunglasses walking beside Kennedy’s vehicle, or standing on the foot boards, or, as is one agent, peering out from the back seat of that Lincoln Continental — seated where Jackie Kennedy would ride in Dallas — they seem so ill equipped to protect JFK should the crowd, let alone a sniper, go after him.

Kennedy's Berlin speech

Photographs in Kennedy in Berlin are by Ulrich Mack; essays in the book are by  Jasper von Altenbockum, Egon Bahr and Hans-Michael Koetzle.

Where business is war

November 12, 2013

"The Navigator" by Michael PocalykoMichael Pocalyko’s financial thriller is one of the most intricately and uniquely plotted novels I’ve ever read that maintains its integrity of suspense and credibility ‘til the very end. Its elements of intrigue are so diverse — cast wide among a World War II mystery, Wall Street power plays, political drama and international  wealth conspiracies, let alone the occasional murder – I kept thinking there’s no way this story is going to come together in the end without feeling forced or manipulated. And yet it does, impressively and brilliantly.

It’s worth noting the author’s background: Mr. Pocalyko (pronounced “poe-calico”) is CEO of Monticello Capital, a boutique investment bank in Washington D.C. His credentials read like the bio of a Tom Clancy character – combat aviator, Navy commander, political candidate, venture capitalist and global corporate chair. Given fiction often draws from an author’s experience, this gives you an idea of The Navigator’s flavor, and of its rich action and realism.

At the center of the drama is the world’s first trillion-dollar private Wall Street deal for the launch of a new global company named ViroSat, or what some are calling “Internet Next.” It’s a worldwide system of integrated satellites and remote receiving stations that’s so vast it surpasses existing Internet and international telecommunication networks — and it’s beyond regulatory reach.

Pulling the deal together is Warren Hunter of Wall Street investment bank Compton Sizemore. Warren is an arrogant, polished negotiator whose razor-sharp insight elevates him to hero status. He’s financing the deal with four-fifths debt and one-fifth equity. Put another way, total required for the ViroSat deal is $1.37 trillion in new debt and $287.7 billion in equity. Where Warren is to source that equity creates the mystery, along with those wanting to stop Warren from closing the deal, including a former communist spy, deceptive entrepreneurs and people who aren’t who they say they are.

Meanwhile, Warren’s older brother Rick Yeager finds himself unemployed in Washington D. C. when the financial company he joins on his first day gets busted by the FBI for the illegal way it moves “scads” of other people’s money. He also finds himself back in touch with his ex-wife Julia, who works for a U.S. senator hot to get legislative oversight on the ViroSat deal. At the same time, strangely, Rick inherits a former financial client’s estate after she dies in a suspicious car accident. And then there’s Dutch, Warren and Rick’s father, a World War II combat air pilot seconded to military intelligence, now weakened and confused by Alzheimer’s. Pocalyko skillfully orchestrates these many narrative threads, suggesting connection, but it’s not until the end when we understand the why and how of it.

A lot needs to be explained about ViroSat’s capital financing and how massive amounts of money work and move. Pocalyko does a fine job of making sure his readers understand without talking down to us. But with that comes a heavy presence of exposition, i.e., explaining and narratively diagramming how money works in such a deal and also how Wall Street and Washington D.C. play in the arena. While informative, the exposition leaches the prose of color and excitement, rendering this story more interesting than gripping.

At one point, early in The Navigator, Warren whispers to ViroSat’s principal Japanese venture partner, who’s got cold feet: “Business is war. Kill or be killed.” The comment sets the stage for this expertly plotted debut and the memorable Warren Hunter.

Field Notes on Science & NatureIt’s odd that a dedicated literary fiction reader (me) would gravitate to a book about recording observations and experiences in the natural world. Especially considering I did everything possible to avoid science classes in high school and college, not always successfully. No matter how hard I studied the material for tests, in fact knew the material, I barely scraped past getting a C+; and yet, Field Notes on Science & Nature keeps drawing me into its pages.

Some of the essays are ‘memoir-ish’ in style. Others are more data-oriented. They all, however, relate stories from the field. Contributors, such as those exampled below, write about how they got started keeping field notebooks, their methodology, their love for what they do and their adventures. Photos and illustrations accompanying the essays invite close perusal for their originality. They are reproductions from actual pages in the authors’ field journals — drawings, lists, handwritten notes, outlines and diagrams. There are 12 essays in all.

Field data form & typical notebook page

  • George B. Schaller, a scientist who’s pioneered studies of endangered and little-known animals, writes about observing lions in the Serengeti plains and tracking mountain gorillas in the Congo and the chiru on the Tibetan Plateau.
  • Bernd Heinrich, a scientific naturalist and marathon runner, writes about note-taking. His life and observations about plants, insects and animals are a testament to what we can see along the way, if we look.
  • Jonathan Kingdon, a zoological illustrator, ecologist, writer and researcher tells us “the humblest field record is always an act of translation.” He writes about why he relies on manual drawing and not the camera to capture his observations of animal anatomy and behavior.
  • Jenny Keller, a science illustrator whose work has appeared in Scientific American and National Geographic, also writes about drawing as an observational tool.
  • Erick Greene studies animal behavior and ecology and answers the question, “Why keep a field notebook?”
  • Kenn Kauffman, world-renowned birder, writes about keeping lists of bird species observed — how on the one hand it can be an obsessive game and on the other a contribution to scientific knowledge.

Even if something like this doesn’t float your reading boat, it might be good to keep in mind for the naturalist on your holiday list in the upcoming months. It’s a beautifully produced book that Harvard Press published 2 years ago. You can get a peek at it in this slide show on the Harvard Press website.

Color swatches & red sea fan

Finally, here’s a gem from the essay called “Letters to the Future,” a quote with the title A Note on Permanence:

“Don’t trust your memory, it will trip you up, what is clear now will grow obscure; what is found will be lost. Write down everything in full; time so spent now will be time saved in the end, when you offer your researches to the discriminating public. Don’t be satisfied with a dry-as-dust item: clothe a skeleton of fact and breathe life into it with thoughts that glow; let the paper smell of the woods. There’s a pulse in each new fact; catch the rhythm before it dies.” (Eliot Coues, Field Ornithologyy, 1874)

The Salinger Contract by Adam LangerAdam Langer’s The Salinger Contract explores the challenges, pitfalls and perils of making a living as a novelist. It’s a highly entertaining story, wildly implausible and yet completely addicting for the inventiveness, humor and lively prose style. Adam Langer is not only the author’s name but also the narrator’s name, in a quirky nod to those aforementioned challenges.

Narrator Adam is a stay-at-home dad in Bloomington, Indiana, and former editor of a New York City literary magazine for which he interviewed famous authors. One of those authors was Connor Joyce, who reappears in Adam’s life at a Bloomington going-out-of-business Borders bookstore, where Connor is giving a reading of his new thriller. When Adam’s toddler Beatrice sees a photo of Connor, she’s frightened. Adam looks back on the moment and thinks it was a sign he should have heeded.

That’s because Adam becomes Connor’s confidante in a bizarre quagmire that involves writing a novel for a mysterious book collector, Dex Dunford. The wealthy Dex, guarded by a gun-toting Eastern European bodyguard, makes an offer Connor, on the down-swell of his best-selling career, can’t refuse. It’s the answer to his financial worries, worth millions, but the requirements of the agreement bond Connor to the nefarious book collector and his menacing henchman in ways that threaten Connor’s life and risk his marriage.

At the root of the agreement is the stipulation that no one can ever know about the unpublished book that will reside in Dex’s private library. And in good company, I might add. Dex’s collection includes original, unpublished manuscripts by Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Harper Lee.

The Salinger Contract is a send-up of the business of books — writing, publishing and collecting — grabbing us with the intrigue of a crime I can’t reveal because that would ruin the book’s cleverness. And the power of the story, its winning element, is that very cleverness. There’s never a dull moment, and book lovers will relish the plot twist of a book written solely for one reader. Adam considers: “Maybe the idea of trying to write for the masses was foolish and egotistical; maybe all that mattered was communing with one other human being.”

Adam is an inviting narrator. Connor is a colorful protagonist. But Dex wins the trophy for unusual provocateur. He’s sophisticated and yet creepy, in a Big Brother sort of way.

As Adam hears more and more about Connor’s story, things don’t add up and doubt sets in. Adam also begins to resent how Connor involves him — having to constantly hear about the high-stakes adventure — and yet, in the end, we come to learn there’s good reason for it.  The story wraps up with the same entertaining surprise, energy and humor that make this book a blast to read.

What books do you reread?

October 8, 2013

When I’m asked that question, I don’t have an answer because I don’t reread books. I never have, other than for classes where a book was assigned that I’d already read/studied, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As a teenager, I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a second time, but that was to prove I could read a fat book twice. These instances don’t count as an answer to that question, which is about revisiting a book you love, that is, about spending time again with familiar characters and plot as one would spend time with familiar friends.

Would I like to reread some books? Absolutely, and I’ve got a list, but it’s not for the guaranteed good read or joy of familiar friends. I want to reread them for the same reason I reread John Gardner’s Grendel last year — they are books I read scads of years ago and feel like I was too young to fully appreciate and understand them. Now, I’m curious about what I missed.

Below are the top five, waiting for a space of time to open up in the ever-present tsunami of new books being published.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Frequently referred to as the best comic novel of the 20th century, Lucky Jim tells the story of Jim Dixon, a medieval history lecturer at a nameless British university. NYRB Classics reissued the book last year, along with other Amis novels.
Why reread: I don’t remember laughing.

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary
Another comedy, published in 1944, featuring hero/artist Gulley Jimson with a focus on the necessity of individual freedom and choice. I read this book in a 1976 college class where we also read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – the lit course focused on existentialism.
Why reread:  Most my college texts have lots of underlining on the pages. This one has virtually none. I feel like I missed the boat.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
This is McCullers’ first novel published in 1940 when she was 23 years old, featuring Mick Kelly, an adolescent modeled after herself. The dust jacket on the Modern Library edition says, “Mick’s spiritual kinship with John Singer, a deaf mute, and with other social misfits, provides a haunting look into the abyss encountered by human beings in their attempts at love.”  The book was made into a movie in 1968 starring Alan Arkin as John Singer.
Why reread: I remember the movie more than the book.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
This Pulitzer Prize winner grabbed me in 1980, five years after its publication year, while I lived in Chicago, where the story is set. It earned a place on my 54 years, 54 books list of favorites, a story about Charlie Citrine whose life is in shambles and the gift that comes to him from friend Von Humboldt Fleisher.
Why reread: This one is closest to wanting to reread for the pleasure of re-experiencing the original immersion and joy that came from it. The real reason, though, is I’ve gifted this book a few times and the receivers didn’t like it. Anatole Broyard panned the book in a 1975 New York Times review. I can’t understand why. My critical mind wants to know.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s work is known for its complexity, including this one, published in 1966, a conspiracy story featuring protagonist Oedipa Maas, a California woman with a mysterious inheritance.
Why reread: This feels like I’m venturing into self-torture. The Oxford Companion to American Literature says Pynchon’s “novels present the reader a huge array of clues but not clear direction in their purposeful ambiguity.” Nevertheless, on a second time through, I want to see if I get it.

%d bloggers like this: