January 28, 2015
Nominees for the 2015 Edgar® Awards were announced last week. These awards honor the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television. Sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, they are widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious in the mystery genre.
The full list of nominees can be found on TheEdgars.com in a handful of categories that includes Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, Best Paperback Original, Best Fact Crime and more. If you’re a Mary Higgins Clark fan, you might want to take a look at the nominees for The Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. Of note is that Invisible City by Julia Dahl is nominated for both the Higgins award and Best First Novel by an American Author. Marilyn Stasio, Crime columnist for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, describes it as “a harrowing tale.”
Even though novels are raised up to “award nominee,” this doesn’t guarantee a five-star reading experience. As I always say, one person’s great read is another’s epic bore. Kirkus Reviews went negative on World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters, nominated for an Edgar Best Paperback Original, saying, “This final installment in Winters’ trilogy (Countdown City, 2013, etc.) is the weakest, marked by a falling off of both the writing and the story that made the first entry worthwhile. ”
I’ve selected one novel from each of three Edgar categories, based on indications of a page-turning thriller (Best Paperback Original, The Day She Died), smart plot complexity (Best Novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible) and a unique perspective (Best First Novel by an American Author, The Life We Bury). Below you’ll find brief descriptions of these three.
The Day She Died by Catriona McPherson
A young woman gets romantically involved with a man whose wife killed herself. But not everything she learns about his family adds up. This mystery received mixed reviews, but the positives are raves. Kirkus Reviews describes it as “a creepy psychological thriller that will leave you breathless.” Library Journal gives its verdict as: “Keep the lights on and batten down the hatches, for McPherson’s psychologically terrifying stand-alone demands to be read all night. … Scottish author McPherson has written a top-notch tale of modern gothic suspense that is sure to please Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier fans.” Whoa. Count me in.
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
I’ve not read Ian Rankin, and it’s time I did, although I’m jumping in with #19 in his Inspector Rebus series here. Hopefully, I’ll not lose any of the thrill, being a latecomer — Rebus is coming out of retirement. He’s been demoted from Detective Inspector to Detective Sargent. A case from long ago that involved his team is being questioned and re-opened. Publisher’s Weekly loved this book, saying: “The immense and intricate canvas includes dozens of characters, plots within plots, and multiple themes, from Scottish independence to the insidiousness of corruption, public and private. Too much may be going on at times for some readers, but distinctive characters (including Edinburgh itself) make the book memorable.” Paperback will be available end of this month.
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
Suspense Magazine listed this mystery among its Best of 2014 books. The publisher, Seventh Street Books, writes: “A young man, caught in the dark maze of circumstances surrounding a crime that occurred thirty years ago, must confront several ugly truths as well as direct threats to his own life.” That young man is Joe Talbert, a junior at the University of Minnesota, who receives a class assignment to write a biography of someone who has lived an interesting life. His subject is Carl Iverson, a Vietnam veteran dying of cancer in a nursing home, who has been medically paroled after spending thirty years in prison for murder. The combination of old connecting with young in storytelling calls to me, as well as the promise of a good mystery. Kirkus Reviews writes, “Eskens’ debut is a solid and thoughtful tale of a young man used to taking on burdens beyond his years—none more dangerous than championing a bitter old man convicted of a horrific crime.”
The Edgar Award winners will be announced April 29.
January 13, 2015
Two 2014-published books, which I didn’t get to read until now, are those below. It happens almost every year, this kind of desire in January to read one or two books from the previous year before I head further into the new books of the new year, because I know I won’t get to them in maybe, well, forever. These two novels are gripping in ways unique to each: Euphoria for its love story and exotic setting of New Guinea in between the World Wars; and the Young Adult novel We Were Liars for the unknown of what happened one summer night.
Euphoria tips its hat to anthropologists Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Reo Fortune during their brief time together in 1933 on the Sepik River in New Guinea, as noted by Lily King in her Acknowledgments. Their true story inspired her to write this fictional story that draws from their lives but does not reflect them. King writes, “I have borrowed from the lives and experiences of these three people, but have told a different story.” And what a great story it is — beautifully written with soulful needs, desires and hopes palpably rendered in the characters, as well as a fascinating window into anthropological study of native cultures (those, too, fictional in Euphoria).
Here’s a plot summary.
Famous American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen unexpectedly run into English anthropologist Andrew Bankson at a Christmas Eve party in the Village of Angoram, New Guinea. The Stones, on their way to Victoria to study the Aborigines, are fleeing a discouraging and frightening time with the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo tribe. Desperately lonely and isolated, Bankson urges them to stay and find a new tribe on the Sepik River where he’s studying the Kionas. He succeeds, and as the three work together in the upcoming weeks, Bankson falls in love with Nell.
Her passionate work behavior and the off-hand way she carries herself, a person of the mind and not of her own well-being, comes across as endearing. Nell squints to see, having lost her glasses, and Bankson gives her spectacles that once belonged to his deceased brother. Nell is brilliant and driven and yet vulnerable — she’s feverish and limping in the beginning. Bankson yearns to take care of her, while Nell’s husband Fen pushes her to get going. He’s constantly fierce with her, jealous of her success, having published a popular book in the United States. Nell recovers her strength and flourishes with the new native tribe on the Sepik River, while Fen neglects their research. The relationship among the three, their work and the surprising conclusion tell a memorable story.
E. Lockhart’s Young Adult novel (ages 12 and up) is told from the viewpoint of teen-aged Cadence Sinclair Eastman. She describes summers spent on Beechwood, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts owned by her Sinclair family. Lockhart provides a map of the island and the locations of the clan’s four houses and staff buildings, as well as a family tree. (I referred to them often.) The Sinclairs are self-interested, stoic, moneyed Democrats. They are athletic and beautiful. Cadence tells us, “We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong.” The patriarch Grandad and his three divorced daughters show forth with perfect appearances of control, privilege and power, yet below that perfection rumbles the reality of greed, insecurity and false love. We Were Liars makes use of the story of King Lear with narrative interludes about a king who had three beautiful daughters and who “as he grew older…began to wonder which should inherit the kingdom.”
An accident happens to Cadence on the island during the summer she is 15 years old. It causes her unbearable migraines and memory loss. Whatever happened also diminishes her closeness to her cousins and fellow liars, Johnny and Mirren, as well as to the non-Sinclair liar Gat Patel, who is the nephew of her Aunt Carrie’s boyfriend and the boy Cadence falls madly in love with. Summer 16, Cadence is taken to Europe. Summer 17, her first return to the island after the accident, she tries to find out what happened summer 15, but everyone is close-lipped.
Much of the story’s allure is the Sinclair’s East Coast, old money mystique and stiff-upper-lip attitude. The story’s power, however, is the uncertainty Lockhart maintains until the mystery is solved. It took me completely by surprise. The ending is horrific in one sense although, being written for young adults, tempered so as to be GP rated. Cadence leaves one to wonder why she did what she did, and how she’ll ever go forward into her life. That, too, makes for powerful reading, which even adults will find intriguing.
January 4, 2015
I always keep an eye on old books — or perhaps I should describe them as “books published not so recently” — and squeeze them in between reading the onslaught of new books grabbing my attention. Perhaps there’s a metaphor for life in this, a reminder not to overlook the old and used that just might offer a great treasure or teach something new.
And so, here are three fictional stories from 1993, 2009 and 1930 to start a new year. In each of them, I found myself involved and entertained.
The Man Who Was Late by Louis Begley
I discovered Louis Begley’s alluring second novel The Man Who Was Late in a rare and used bookshop. It’s what you would call a “mannered” novel in that the rhythm and tone of the prose carry a hint of formality, as the narrator Jack reflects on the life of his Harvard classmate, Ben. They are the closest of friends, with disparate backgrounds: Jack is East Coast upper class and Ben the Jersey son of Jewish refugees. The language creates what’s compelling about the story, a bit of remove that reflects Ben’s reserved character. He is a charming, high-profile international investment banker and lover of many women. But he holds the world at bay to protect his loneliness. Ben’s affair with Jack’s cousin Véronique in Paris forces him to confront painful realities about who he is and what he’s done with his life, burdened by believing he missed the proverbial boat in securing a place in the good life. The Man Who Was Late, published in 1993, ultimately is a love story, but you come away holding in afterthoughts a moving, unforgettable character portrait. Of note: Louis Begley won high praise for his first novel Wartime Lies. It was listed among the best books of 1991 and nominated for the National Book Award that year.
Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
The Wall Street Journal listed Harry Dolan’s The Last Dead Girl as one of 2014’s best mysteries, but when the book came out earlier in the year, I found more enthusiastic reviews for his 2009 mystery Bad Things Happen. It’s Dolan’s first novel, and it introduces his character David Loogan in his David Loogan Series. The Last Dead Girl is #3 and the prequel to Bad Things Happen. The final clincher for me to read the old rather than the new Dolan book was its “you won’t figure it out” description of twists and turns. That is indeed true, making Bad Things Happen intriguing high-entertainment. The easy-going, suspicious, criminally inclined Loogan is hired as an editor of mystery magazine Gray Streets in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gray Streets publisher Tom Kristoll lures him into hiding the body of a dead man (no questions asked) and then ends up dead himself. Two more murders follow, and the detective on the case is torn between thinking Loogan is a suspect versus an ally in finding the truth. The story is all-at-once suspenseful, fast-paced and written with a light touch of humor. Very fun to read.
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
For many readers, this may be a so-what recommendation. Georges Simenon’s prolific outpouring of Inspector Maigret crime novels during the mid-20th century is legendary. Also, many likely are familiar with the Inspector Maigret PBS television series starring Michael Gambon. But the full monty of Maigret novels has been unavailable for some time, and hard to access. A few years ago, I wrote here on TLC about my unsuccessful attempt to get my hands on the first Maigret novel. Now it’s here, thanks to Penguin Books that’s publishing new English versions of all Simenon’s Maigret books, 75 in total. The first, Pietr the Latvian (newly translated by David Bellos), was originally published in serial format in 1930. It features the 45-year-old Inspector Maigret hunting a notorious international swindler. The narrative style is far from great prose, but that’s not what I’m looking for when I turn to Simenon. I want a reading snack, and he always delivers: suspenseful, plot-driven, quick-to-read (usually south of 200 pages) and very satisfying crime stories. I speed right over such laughable writing as:
“It could’ve sounded merely grotesque. But it did not! It was fearsome! Tragic! Terrifying!”
From The New York Times: “Penguin said it was working with the Brazilian company Companhia das Letras and the Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert ‘to develop haunting, evocative covers that will offer a window to Maigret’s dangerous world and allow readers new and old to identify the series.'”
December 24, 2014
If you casually flip through Richard McGuire’s new graphic novel, it won’t take long to realize the same view of one corner of a living room is the story. It’s about the events that take place in that space over thousands of years.
Each two-page spread depicts the corner, with a window on the left and a fireplace on the right, at different moments throughout time. The room’s decorations change according to the trends of decades, as do the hairstyles and clothing of the people. Some of these people reappear throughout the book, their emotions and moments captured and sometimes played out in mini stories.
The upper corner of the left page states the year of the living room. Windowed time capsules layered over the main illustration reflect past and future events that have and will occur in and around that very corner of space. Sometimes the living room isn’t even present, illustrating time before the house existed, such as in prehistoric and colonial times, as well as after the house disappears in the future, when rising waters of climate change roll in, or after the earth is destroyed and a new one begins. This is not as much a book to read as it is to experience, turning the pages and pouring over the history of one space throughout time.
Richard McGuire began this project 25 years ago when his first iteration of the concept appeared in the comics journal Raw, co-edited at the time by Art Spiegelman, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus.
According to an article in The New York Times, the concept moved toward development into a book, but Mr. McGuire couldn’t make it work and put away the project. And then, the death of his parents and an older sister “brought him back to the project with renewed energy and a mountain of source material.” The living room is from his childhood home.
In some illustrations, reactions or occurrences in one year reflect an event in the past, such as in this one below, where a woman in 1992 is reading on the sofa by the living room window, surrounded by a forest that populated the space in 1609. In the forest, a woman says, “Tell me a story,” to her companion.
In 1763, we see a man chopping down a tree in the forest, which eventually will be replaced with houses. In 1989, a family member is telling a joke that in an abstract way relates to the loss of the trees.
During colonial times, a brick house existed on land across the street from Mr. McGuire’s 20th century suburban house. Ben Franklin makes an appearance at the colonial residence in one of the mini stories. In 1783, the house burns down. In the overlay of time in the living room, 1989, a man has a coughing fit, as if reacting to the smoke.
The illustrations span a time range of 3,000,500,000 BCE to 22,175. In between, emotions of sorrow, joy, confusion and happiness play out, as well as experiences of birth, accident and death. Below, in 2005, a family member is losing his hearing while in 1964, a group plays a game of charades (“Sounds like,” the man says); in 2111, ocean waters swirl where once the house stood; and in 2006, a phone rings that nobody answers.
The Morgan Library & Museum exhibited Richard McGuire’s work this past fall. “Sharing a Sofa with Dinosaurs,” an article in The New York Times, provides a slide show from the exhibit that gives an idea of how Mr. McGuire put the book together. He’s done it with such a seductive draw that it’s hard to stop turning the pages, creating a need to keep observing the fascinating life details as they unfold. You’ll come away thinking differently about a room you live in, specifically what happened in its space years before you ever existed — and what will happen years in the future, after you’re gone.
December 12, 2014
The first line in Deirdre Madden’s new novel is a simple question, but in the context of this spare, enlightening story, it carries heavy meaning. “Where does it all begin?” she writes, and then introduces us to Fintan Buckley, a middle-aged family man and legal advisor who’s “faithful as Lassie.” He stops at a café before returning to the office after lunch and there, over his coffee and cake, experiences a psychic detachment from the present moment. Words, language and objects are becoming strange to him. This is where it begins for Fintan, who starts to feel a dimension of past and present time existing simultaneously, that which is eternal time. This concept would be expected in a science fiction novel, but this is a story about an ordinary man living an ordinary life in the year 2006.
Fintan lives with his wife and three children in a small coastal town outside Dublin, Ireland. We learn about his courtship and marriage to his wife Colette and his struggle to be a loving parent to his two sons both now in college – frugal, socially conscious Niall and materialistic Rob. Then, Lucy came along, a surprise, late-in-life baby, now seven years old, the love of Fintan’s life. His widowed mother never tires of her own company, and his sister Martina owns and runs a women’s clothing boutique. She unexpectedly returned to Dublin from London just in time to help their recently widowed Aunt Beth. In one chapter, Fintan takes Lucy and her friend Emma to the zoo.
In other words, it is a typical life for Fintan and his family. Except Fintan has become worried that his life will be over before he’s had a chance to live it, or understand it. Madden writes, “Sometimes he feels he can almost hear time rushing past him; it is like a kind of unholy wind. He wakes, he works, he sleeps, and then another day is gone and then another week.” Fintan becomes intrigued with old black-and-white photographs and the way they stop time. Lucy asks questions, such as: When did the world change from black and white to color? Where does the past go? Meanwhile, the odd shifts in perception continue. For example, Fintan listens to his elderly Aunt Beth and hears her voice as it would’ve been when she was a young girl.
Three months go by, and the shifts become less frequent. Deirdre Madden writes, “Where does it all end?” as the first line of the last chapter. Fintan discovers the answer in the conclusion of this perceptive novel, and it lies in the full nature of time beyond the measurement of clocks and calendars — because they can only tell us time is passing.
The title Time Present and Time Past comes from “Burnt Norton” in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
You can hear T.S. Eliot reading the complete poem at Open Culture.
December 2, 2014
The Nobel Foundation gave French author Patrick Modiano the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature 2014 this past October. He’s written 17 novels during his career, but few are available in English translation. Yale University Press and University of California Press in November released Suspended Sentences and Dora Bruder, respectively. David R. Godine published Modiano before he won the prize with Missing Person and Honeymoon, as well as the children’s book Catherine Certitude.
I’ve picked up a copy of Dora Bruder, which I’m looking forward to reading. Meanwhile, my curiosity about books originally published in French led me to the recently announced longlist for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And when I say longlist, I mean indeed a long list — there are 142 nominees. The titles are nominated for the award by libraries worldwide. The award goes to a single work of fiction that must be published in English. According to the organization’s press release, this year’s candidates were nominated by libraries in 114 cities and 39 countries.
Eight of the nominees are books translated from the French into English. I’ve listed the eight novels here, with beginning sentences from their overview descriptions. The Read More will take you to the full overview on the website of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. All eight appear to be available with online booksellers. Éric Reinhardt’s novel, at this point in time, is only available as an ebook and Andreï Makine’s novel I found on Amazon but not Barnes & Noble.
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine;
translated by Lulu Norman
Published in English by Tinhouse.
Published in French as Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen.
“On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The bombers came from the shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a poor suburb on the edge of a dump whose impoverished residents rarely if ever set foot in the cosmopolitan city at their doorstep. Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God follows four childhood friends growing up in Sidi Moumen as they make the life-changing decisions that will lead them to become Islamist martyrs.” Read more.
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon;
translated by Ursula Meany Scott
Published in English by Lilliput Press.
Published in French as Retour à Killybegs.
“Tyrone Meehan, damned as an informer, ekes out his days in Donegal, awaiting his killers. ‘Now that everything is out in the open, they will all speak in my place – the IRA, the British, my family, my close friends, journalists I’ve never even met. Some of them will go so far as to explain how and why I ended up a traitor…’” Read more.
For Sure by France Daigle;
translated from by Robert Majzels
Published in English by House of Anansi.
Published in French as Pour sur.
“For Sure is among other things a labyrinth, a maze, an exploration of the folly of numbers, a repository, a defense and an illustration of the Chiac language. Written in dazzling prose — which is occasionally interrupted by surprising bits of information, biography, and definitions that appear on the page — Daigle perfectly captures the essence of a place and offers us a reflection on minority cultures and their obsession with language.” Read more.
Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan; translated by George Miller
Published in English by Bloomsbury.
Published in French as Rien ne s’oppose a la nuit.
“Only a teenager when Delphine was born, Lucile raised two daughters largely alone. She was a former child model from a Bohemian family, younger and more glamorous than the other mothers: always in lipstick, wayward and wonderful. But as Delphine grew up, Lucile’s occasional sadness gave way to overwhelming despair and delusion.” Read more.
Saving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy;
translated by Howard Curtis
Published in English by Europa Editions.
Published in French as Sauver Mozart.
“Raphaël Jerusalmy’s debut novel takes the form of the journal of Otto J. Steiner, a former music critic of Jewish descent suffering from tuberculosis in a Salzburg sanatorium in 1939. Drained by his illness and isolated in the gloomy sanatorium, Steiner finds solace only in music. He is horrified to learn that the Nazis’ are transforming a Mozart festival into a fascist event.” Read more.
Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Maldine;
translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Published in English by Maclehose Press.
Published in French as Le livre des brèves amours éternelles.
“In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance. Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him…” Read more.
Life Form by Amélie Nothomb;
translated by Alison Anderson
Published by Europa Editions.
Published in French language as Une forme de vie.
“Here is a new work of fiction by the always surprising Nothomb that subverts any attempts at categorization; a smart, singular, surreal novel about personality and philosophy, trauma and healing, solitude and human connection from one of Europe’s most talked about and beloved authors. One morning, the heroine of this book, a well-known author named Amélie Nothomb, receives a letter from one of her readers – an American soldier stationed in Iraq by the name of Melvin Mapple.” Read more.
The Victoria System by Éric Reinhardt;
translated by Sam Taylor
Published as an ebook by Penguin Books.
Published in the French language as Le système Victoria.
“David Kolski never sleeps with the same woman twice – apart from his wife. Then he meets Victoria. Head of people at a multinational company, by day she is a ruthless executive in a lightning-paced, high-pressured whirlwind of power and productivity. By night she likes good wine, luxurious hotel rooms, and abandoning herself to her sexual fantasies.” Read more.
The IMPAC shortlist from the 142 longlist will be announced April 15, 2015. The winner will be announced June 17, 2015. Of note: the longlist includes 37 American novels.
November 11, 2014
Florence Gordon is a renowned feminist, activist and writer whose heyday in the 1970’s marked her as a hero of the Women’s Movement. She is the Big Gorilla in this novel’s cast of characters, a touchstone of truth and one of a kind, to say the least: an intense, blunt, intimidating 75-year-old woman who’s intolerant of distractions. In one scene, annoyed by a friend who constantly checks her BlackBerry, Florence grabs the device and throws it into a pitcher of sangria.
The book’s dramatic pulses lie within the uncertainties Florence’s son Daniel, his wife Janine and their daughter Emily bring to the story. They are temporarily living near Florence on the Upper West Side of New York, thanks to a fellowship Janine is pursuing in psychology. Janine is attracted to her supervisor and tests the waters of an affair. Daniel discovers her attempts and suffers what appears to be a heart attack while Janine attends an out-of-town conference with her lover. Nineteen-year-old Emily also is out of town, exploring sex and drugs with a problematic ex-boyfriend.
Janine’s fellowship is about the complicated relationship between our intentions and our impulses, between the parts of ourselves that seem to be under our control and the parts of ourselves that don’t. Author Brian Morton tugs at us with this concept as Daniel, Janine and Emily wrestle with their confusions and desires. They exist in contrast to the majestic Florence for whom, as Morton writes, “There was no corridor of uncertainty between the decision and the act.”
What makes this novel so engaging is that the characters, living these profound concepts, are funny, colorful and warmly human. Their story is written in precise, upbeat prose with a seductive energy. Morton explores ideas about the Women’s Movement, aging with grace and dignity, and living with integrity.
Florence is unaware of her family’s trials. She keeps herself removed from family and friends, and yet she inspires them.
“Florence’s success had shaken something loose inside Janine. Florence was a woman who had never compromised. And now, at long last, she was reaping the fruits of her courage. So the question, Janine thought, is this: If I exercised a bravery in my own life equivalent to that which Florence has exercised in hers, what would I be doing? What would I be doing differently?”
Meanwhile, Florence writes her memoir, participates on panels and enjoys a renewed celebrity status due to a prominent New York Times book review that describes her as a national treasure. However, her left foot begins to drag. It’s annoying at first, and then, after medical tests, it becomes the beginning of this memorable character’s final challenge. She faces it, not surprisingly, with conviction, giving her family — and us, as readers — an example of what it’s like to live boldly with trust in one’s beliefs.
October 29, 2014
Horror books are being talked about this Halloween week, but my thoughts go to these three books soon to be released and far from anything that’s blood curdling in tone and frightening in intent.
Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton
The paperback for this suspenseful novel has a planned release in November. It’s serving as a reminder that I missed picking up the book a year ago, when it was first published (and I wrote about it here on TLC). The protagonist is John Wilderness, a gifted orphan who survives the London Blitz and goes on to serve as an MI6 agent and black market con artist in Berlin, just after the war, 1947. His story also takes place in 1963 when he’s approached with an assignment that takes him back to Berlin. Kirkus Reviews says it’s “a wonderfully complex and nuanced thriller,” the first in a new series. Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist all gave it a starred review. From the book’s overview/description: “Then We Take Berlin is a gripping, meticulously researched and richly detailed historical thriller — a moving story of espionage and war, and people caught up in the most tumultuous events of the twenty-first century.”
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer
Travel writer and essayist Pico Iyer brings to light the importance of hitting the pause button in our over-scheduled, frenetic contemporary life. Kirkus Reviews writes, “This book isn’t a meditation guide or a New-Age tract but rather a celebration of the age-old practice of sitting with no goal in mind and no destination in sight.” A mere 120 pages, it seems like a must-read. The Art of Stillness is one among 12 in a series of books being co-published by TED and Simon & Schuster. Many may know of Iyer’s popular essay published in The New York Times, “The Joy of Quiet.” This brief excerpt gives an idea of what may come in his new book.
“‘Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,’ the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, ‘and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.’ He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Given starred reviews by Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, this novel tells the story of two sisters raised in a Canadian Mennonite community: Elf (Elfrieda) a famous, glamorous, wealthy pianist with everything going for her in life but suffering from depression; and Yoli (Yolandi) on the opposite end of the spectrum, divorced and broke. Elf is suicidal, and Yoli pledges to keep her beloved sister alive. The Guardian writes: “Its compulsive readability is all the more remarkable since the story issues from such a dark place in the author’s heart.” (Canadian author Toews has a family history of suicide.) The Telegraph writes: “… ironically for a book with self-annihilation as its subject, bursts with ramshackle, precious life.”
August 21, 2014
Books are our friends, at least for those of us who read them and clutter our homes with them. But when I was struck with unfathomable sadness recently from my father’s emergency surgery and then death, these friends dried up on me. I stared at open pages of print while I sat beside him in his hospital room. I read sentences two and three times and, if I got through a paragraph, often I had to return to the beginning and read the paragraph again. I struggled to remember plotlines. At home, late at night, unable to sleep, I tried reading out loud but got lost within the sounds of my voice. I would put a book down. I would start another one and then repeat the process. I became anxious in my longing to find solace in the familiar land of literature as I kept attempting it without success. And then I picked up David Connerley Nahm’s new novel, Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, the friend that stopped the spin.
With emotional precision, Nahm wholly engages us in the story of protagonist Leah Shepherd’s lifetime grief over the disappearance of her brother Jacob when he was seven and she was 10 years old. The inventive plotting navigates past and present with elegiac unfolding that reveals Leah’s isolation built with walls of loss and guilt. She is the executive director of a nonprofit organization that supports low-income women and children in Crow Station, Kentucky, where she grew up with Jacob. It is here we experience their lush childhood days and, three decades later, Leah’s adult work life.
Jacob and Leah are “rippling reflections of one another,” a brother and sister entwined as they romp with unfettered innocence through and around Crow Station’s yards and driveways, woods, pastures, streams and lakes, surrounded by smells of lilac and manure. They share a bedroom, and most nights Jacob crawls into bed with his big sister, scared of a menacing creature. He’s always afraid, it seems, and doesn’t want to leave her side. Every Sunday morning he fusses, cries and resists going to church, threatening to run away. He complains about a strange man in the backyard that no one else sees. Leah plays with Jacob’s fears, teasing and terrifying him, and then backing off to comfort him.
The prismatic scenes magnetically lure us toward the day of Jacob’s disappearance, but we can only know what might have happened because Leah knows only the how, what and why of it in murmured possibilities. We observe her deep yearning, thinking and hurt about her past while she’s at work, helping the disadvantaged women. A most notable, symbolic moment occurs when she buys herself a blue VW Bug, reminding us of a plastic toy replica she once gave Jacob for Christmas. Strangely, an unfamiliar man repeatedly tries to contact Leah at her office, but she ignores him. Amid the drama, we are comforted by the Kentucky environment, depicted as an ocean that rises up and floods our senses with atmospheric images of its terrain, mood and small-town humanity.
Many novels are being published with plots centered on the mystery of a missing child, including Bret Anthony Johnston’s newly released Remember Me Like This, let alone Alice Sebold’s famously popular 2002 bestseller The Lovely Bones. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky holds a solid, laudable place in this fictional category with its impressionistic, recollective and worried style. You cannot help but be transfixed.
One Sunday morning, before church, Leah does not respond to Jacob’s predictable and annoying, pouting protests as he storms out of the house, and that is the morning he disappears. She is forever haunted, and so are we.
Why this book worked and others didn’t I can’t know for sure. I suspect it’s because of the atmospheric draw and the sympathetic connection to a world of grief. As I write this, I wonder if it’s fair to the author that I position his book as I have, framed in the significance it played during days I spent consumed with worry and sadness – because I wonder if that overshadows what simply needs to be known about this book, being its top literary quality, a story for any time. But what greater praise can one give a book than to say, of all the books available during a difficult time in my life, this one became my friend.
August 3, 2014
The Man Booker Longlist was announced several days ago. It’s one of my favorite annual literary announcements because the list typically broadens my reading life to include diverse titles from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe. But this year, the dynamic is different due to the decision to include American books. In other words, unfortunately, there’s not so much unique discovery and surprise — that “broadening” — as before.
The Longlist of 13 books is below, divided by their current availability in the U.S. I’ll clarify this availability in the U.S. as hardbound versions, as I’m not sure if/how e-books might be made available from the U.K. That said, The Wake is e-book available only, anywhere, right now. Keep in mind publishers are moving up dates for some of the books because of the nomination. I’ve got my eye on Niall Williams, Richard Flanagan and David Mitchell for reading opportunities. Maybe they’ll enter the winning stretch.
The Shortlist of six novels will be announced September 9. The winner will be announced October 14.
Seven Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Presently Available in the U.S.
History of the Rain by Niall Williams
Bibliophiles take note: There are three thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight books figuring into this story in which a bedridden woman is in search of her father. Much of that search, I gather, is from his books. Publisher’s Weekly says the “new novel has a unique voice and a droll, comic tone that takes a surprising, serious turn.” Kirkus describes it as: “A rambling, soft-hearted Irish family saga stuffed with eccentricity, literature, anecdotes, mythology, humor and heartbreak…”
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
U.S. author Hustvedt focuses on artist/protagonist Harriet Burden who creates a hoax to prove gender bias in the art world. The NYRB review in its current edition (8/14/14) says this novel “…comes across more as a straitened feminist concept-piece than satisfactory storytelling.” The Rumpus review responds to the novel more positively, describing it as “dizzying, deeply felt.”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
U.S. author Fowler’s unforgettable novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke about unusual family circumstances while she was growing up, specifically about her sister Fern. I recommend if you chose to read the book, do so without reading too much about it. It’s got a clincher that’s best discovered on your own and that too many reviews give away. A terrific book I read, discussed and recommended last year.
Orfeo by Richard Powers
In this novel, 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. It’s called “engrossing” by The Washington Post and considered an emotional engager by the reviewer in The New York Times. U.S. author Powers is a National Book Award winner for The Echomaker.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
U.S. author Ferris’s third novel received rave reviews this year. And it’s not only Longlisted by the Man Booker but also the International Dylan Thomas Prize. The story focuses on a dentist struggling with life’s meaning who has his identity stolen. From the publisher’s website: “What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online ‘Paul’ might be a better version of the real thing.”
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Via the publisher’s website: “Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next. Set in the three years after the Norman invasion of 1066, The Wake will tell the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders.” Be sure to check out the book’s full description, so you’re aware of the unique narrative voice. At this point, e-book availability only from this Irish author.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
Starred reviews by Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, the story features an unnamed hero who leaves New York to start a new life in Dubai working for a wealthy family as a “family officer.” The publisher describes this novel as “a tale of alienation and heartbreak in Dubai.” Irishman O’Neill lives in New York. His residence is likely the reason some media outlets say there are five Americans on the Man Booker Longlist and others say there are four.
Three Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Soon to be Published in the U.S.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Australian author Richard Flanagan focuses his new story on the WWII Japanese POW experience and the “death railways” built in Burma. Reviewer for The Telegraph calls is “graceful and unfathomable.” Reviewer in The Guardian writes: “Flanagan’s novel is a grand examination of what it is to be a good man and a bad man in the one flesh and, above all, of how hard it is to live after survival.” In 2009, I recommended Flanagan’s novel Wanting for its lyric narrative voice but cautioned about its failure to ground readers in the plot’s historical timelines. (August)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Irish author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice prior to this. Both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly have “star” reviewed this book that strikes as an unusual story spanning the life of Holly Sykes, a protagonist that’s described as a “lightning rod for psychic phenomena.” She runs away when she’s 15 years old and encounters other-worldly forces in the English countryside. Events affect her and others’ lives ever onward into the future. (September)
Us by David Nicholls
British author Nicholls writes about a man hoping to save his marriage. The publisher’s description says “Us is a moving meditation on the demands of marriage and parenthood, the regrets of abandoning youth for middle age, and the intricate relationship between the heart and the head.” Available in October 2014 and highly anticipated due to the popularity of his last book, One Day.
The Remaining Three — With 2015 or No Dates Listed
J by Howard Jacobson
British author Jacobson won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. His new novel is a futuristic love story. Howard Jacobson is a frequent presence on Man Booker Longlists. Scheduled to be published in the U.K. in August but, in the U.S., not until March 2015.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Description on the Man Booker site says it is a novel about art’s versatility. To be published September in the U.K. No date listed for the U.S.
July 25, 2014
I’m overloaded reading fiction right now, while these three non-fiction books, released this summer, pull at me with a siren call. Here are brief summaries of what they’re about, so you, too, can hear the call.
The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It by John W. Dean
John Dean’s new book is here to divulge the full and complete story of President Richard Nixon’s role in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building — that nasty 1970’s scandal that riveted the nation, famously written about by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. August 8 marks the 40 year anniversary of Nixon’s resignation due to the scandal. From the publisher’s description: “In The Nixon Defense, former White House Counsel John W. Dean, one of the last major surviving figures of Watergate, draws on his own transcripts of almost a thousand conversations, a wealth of Nixon’s secretly recorded information and more than 150,000 pages of documents in the National Archives and the Nixon Library to provide the definitive answer to the question: What did President Nixon know and when did he know it?” Kirkus in its starred review tempts us with this statement: “And as for that missing tape, the one about which so much was made at the Watergate hearings? It would spoil the surprise to tell it here, but Dean has the answers.” Prepare to buckle down: The book’s page count is close to 800 pages. (Check out History.com for videos about the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s resignation speech.)
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
Kevin Birmingham takes us inside the story of James Joyce the writer and the struggle he endured to get his now classic novel published. Granted, Ulysses may be a challenging read, but the story around it is fascinating. For years it was banned in the English-speaking world, “disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain,” according to the book’s dust jacket that also states: “The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.” Kirkus gives it a starred review. So does Publisher’s Weekly stating: “Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece.” If you haven’t read Ulysses, at least you could say you read about it in The Most Dangerous Book. The publisher says it’s “written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century.”
The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle by Francisco Goldman
I’ve loved Francisco Goldman’s novels since his first, The Long Night of White Chickens that’s a love story and murder mystery set in Boston and Guatemala. Then came The Ordinary Seaman and Say Her Name, not a full list of his novels but the ones I read. And so I’m drawn to read his new, non-fiction book. It bears knowing that in 2005, Goldman married Aura Estrada. Two years later, during a vacation on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Estrada died in a bodysurfing accident. The Interior Circuit, written after grieving for his wife in the fictionalized account of her tragic death in Say Her Name, explores the people, politics and communities of Estrada’s native city, “balancing personal memoir and reportage,” according to the book’s dust jacket. Publisher’s Weekly gives the book a star and describes Goldman as “a perceptive, funny and philosophical narrator.”