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.”
July 14, 2014
When I read an author’s second novel — and I’ve not read the first one — I feel like I’ve walked into a show in the second act. I’m not talking about novels in a series, such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or detective sequences. This is about literary novels or stand-alones, and it happens especially when the first book, the author’s debut, is a five-star stunner that I’ve missed for one reason or another.
When the second novel comes out, I’m eager to get acquainted with the new, lauded writer. My expectations are high. I’m thinking I’ll be swept away with awesomeness, but many times the second novel doesn’t measure up to expectations created from what I’ve read about the amazing debut. That’s where I stand with The Hour of Lead, Bruce Holbert’s new, second novel.
Similar to his first novel (which I haven’t read), it takes us deep into the culture of the American West in Washington state. The Hour of Lead, without a doubt, is written with gorgeous prose, the kind that loops around a thought in long, poetic sentences, evoking impressionistic images of the territory. The strength of the story lies in a tragedy that takes place in 1918, in the first pages, and rings in an echo throughout the rest of the book: A monumental snow storm suddenly sweeps into Lincoln County, Washington, taking the life of protagonist Matt Lawson’s twin brother and father. The event permanently unsettles Matt’s sense of himself. He’s unable to fully love and remains constantly vulnerable to simmering rage. We care about him, and that’s what saves this otherwise problematic novel.
Matt as a teenager, alone with his mother, continues to run the family farm. Wendy, the grocer’s daughter, becomes Matt’s first and only love, but their relationship is shattered by a gross misunderstanding. Wendy delivers her rejection with a gunshot wound, and Matt vanishes like an injured animal. He finds jobs away from home, eventually settling in as a dedicated workman for a 70-year-old man whose lazy son gambles and drinks. Meanwhile, Wendy, feeling guilty, moves in with Matt’s mother to help on the farm.
Nineteen years pass until Matt is able to face Wendy again. His return comes at a time when the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River is breaking apart the area’s farms. So, too, at this point, does the story break apart. Events are colorful, violent and dramatic, but they equate to plot movement without engagement, and lose our emotional tie to the heart of the story — of Matt as a broken man, who knows being the one survivor of the snow storm changed him forever and confesses to Wendy, “I’m not right.” Also, those gorgeous sentences begin to feel forced and wrestled.
Matt and Wendy marry, raise two children and scrape by with Matt’s job on the Coulee Dam. Their story ends in Hallmark fashion, surrounded by grandchildren. What we are to make of it all, I’m not sure, with no sense of resolution or meaning – no fundamental gift from the storytelling given to us upon the last page, where the author is merely clever and has lost the atmosphere and pull of Matt’s story.
Whether or not I read Bruce Holbert’s first novel, Lonesome Animals, remains to be determined. Reading a debut after the second novel isn’t the same as experiencing an author’s first, fresh, exciting burst onto the literary scene. Meanwhile, I just finished Tom Rachmann’s debut The Imperfectionists, published four years ago. It’s a terrific novel about editors and reporters working for an English newspaper based in Rome, now out in paperback. I read it because Rachmann’s second novel is out this summer, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. I wanted to be ready for it.
July 1, 2014
This is not a beach-read list, rather the “required” reading I’ve set forth for myself as a tip of the hat to the summers of my youth, when I had assigned summer reading lists. From all those summers, I only remember Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court assigned during two separate summers. I struggled through them — probably why they’re the ones I remember — confused by and uninterested in the plots. I should reread them as an adult because they may simply be classics that were wasted on my youth, but not this summer. I have three classics I want to read before Labor Day arrives, tucked in among the new books that are always ongoing.
Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara
Penguin Classics began re-issuing John O’Hara’s books last year to coincide with the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio, reminding us that writer Fran Lebowitz famously called O’Hara “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald.” (She said it in an interview with The Paris Review.) O’Hara chronicled the world of the upper class and its wealth, ambitions and discontent. He’s best known for his first novel Appointment in Samarra, but also BUtterfield 8, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor. Ten North Frederick won the National Book Award in 1956. It focuses on the public and private life of the politically ambitious Joe Chapin in the fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. From the Penguin description: “… as his daughter looks back on his life, a different man emerges: one in conflict with his ambitious and shrewish wife, terrified that the misdeeds of his children will dash his political dreams, and in love with a model half his age.” John O’Hara is thought to be one of the most prominent American writers in the 20th century.
A New Life by Bernard Malamud
This is Bernard Malamud’s third novel after The Natural and The Assistant. It tells the story of Sy Levin, “formerly a drunkard,” relocating to the Pacific Northwest to teach English at Cascadia College and start the eponymous new life. He doesn’t fully realize Cascadia is not a liberal arts institution, rather an agricultural college. Further, the positive change he anticipates for his life doesn’t exactly materialize. What draws me to spend time reading this book is not only having loved Malamud’s The Magic Barrel and Dubin’s Lives, but also Jonathan Lethem’s claim that A New Life is Malamud’s “funniest and most embracing, an underrated masterpiece.” You can read more of Lethem’s comments in the book’s introduction via a preview. A New Life was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award in fiction along with Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. The award, in a surprising upset, went to Percy Walker’s The Moviegoer.
The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
There’s a common saying among addicted readers that we keep buying more and more books, with less and less time to read them, because it fuels the hope that the time one day will be there. And so here’s my self-reveal: I purchased my copy of The Mountain Lion at Three Lives & Co. in New York in December 2009. It is the story of a young sister and brother, Molly and Ralph, who leave Los Angeles to summer on an uncle’s ranch in Colorado. From the book’s back cover: “There the children encounter an enchanting new world — savage, direct, beautiful, untamed — to which, over the next few years, they will return regularly, enjoying a delicious double life. And yet at the same time this other sphere, about which they are both so passionate, threatens to come between their passionate attachment to each other.” This is Jean Stafford’s most highly acclaimed novel, published in 1947. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970 for her Collected Stories. “Jean Stafford: Diamond in a Rough Life” by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post (2007) showcases her forgotten talent and work.
June 16, 2014
The Undertaking opens with a wedding, but it’s not a typical exchange of romantic vows. A German soldier named Peter Faber commits to Katharina Spinell from the battlefield. Her photo is tied to a nearby post of a barbed wire fence. A thousand miles away in Berlin, at exactly the same moment, Katharina commits to Peter in a similar ceremony. They’ve never met. Both are taking part in a war pact that ensures honeymoon leave for Peter and a widow’s pension for Katharina in the event of Peter’s death.
It’s a unique premise for a World War II novel that Audrey Magee, in an interview with her editor, says she discovered in conversation with a German restaurant owner. He spoke of his WWII experiences as a transport pilot and happened to mention that he married a woman he’d never met so he could get honeymoon leave. The concept fascinated this talented first-time author and helped shape the structure of a novel that had been brewing for a long time.
Regarding that brewing, Magee describes an earlier incident involving a visit to Dachau with a Jewish-American man. The concentration camp was closed, so they walked the perimeter and met a German woman tending her garden who’d lived all her life next to the camp. In a heated discussion, Magee heard from the woman an everyday existence lived with a blind eye turned to what was happening during the war, even next door. This, too, helped shaped The Undertaking.
Magee writes this unforgettable novel in spare prose that’s void of elaborate description and inner thoughts of the characters. The dialogue is written with a staccato rhythm. But don’t for a moment think the result is a dry story. It’s instead quite profound and vivid in its stark portrayal of ordinary Germans waiting for the war to be over, with Germany as the ruling empire, Berlin at the center of the world. Not much description or explanation is needed – their delusion speaks for itself, as does their selfishness and casual cruelty.
Surprisingly, during their honeymoon in Berlin, Katharina and Peter like each other and even fall in love. After their short time together, Peter returns to the Eastern Front where he faces the monumental Battle of Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Katharina enters the upper echelons of Nazi social society.
Shortly after Peter leaves, Katharina and her parents get to move into a luxury home due to their connection to the Führer’s inner circle. The apartment is filled with the previous owner’s lavish belongings. Katharina’s mother chillingly says, “It’s our turn now … our turn at the good life.” Katharina’s father trashes the library books and also a white marble bust of the composer Mendelssohn, which is later replaced with Wagner. In this instance, as in many others, the novel’s power is drawn from what’s implied and what we already know from history.
The narrative superbly goes back and forth between Katharina and Peter’s worlds, the one filled with cakes and holiday parties, the other with battles, horrific starvation and bitter cold. Their belief in a normal life with each other at the end of the war sustains their hope, but the bombing of Berlin and the defeat at Stalingrad change everything.
Katharina and Peter’s WWII story grips us with unsettling power from beginning to end in this magnificent new book. It is scheduled for publication end of the summer. Eager readers, however, can purchase the U.K. edition (the real first edition) from The Mysterious Bookshop — their books are signed firsts, a treasure for collectors, and because of that and the U.K. origin, you’ll pay a bit more.
June 4, 2014
Many years ago, I took piano lessons at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago on Michigan Avenue. I was a hobbyist, an amateur, playing technically difficult pieces, practicing nights and weekends around my 9-to-5 job. I also practiced during my lunch hours, in the practice rooms at the Conservatory that was near to where I worked. One day, riding the elevator back to my desk, an executive seconded to the company from London, England, asked about the piano music I carried in my arms. We were the only two on the elevator taking us to the 52nd floor.
He told me that he studied the piano once and had intended to make it his profession. He was accepted at the London Conservatory of Music, but on the first day, he didn’t show up at class. In fact, he walked away from the conservatory and the career forever, fearful and intimidated by what it would take to succeed. He also walked away from the piano, never touching it again. While he was cool and calm, I heard a wrenching personal trauma. He admitted that, seeing my music, a yearning for the piano rose up in him, what Alan Rusbridger in Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible refers to as one’s musical inner life — or creative DNA — tugging at the soul.
Rusbridger “mucked around on the piano” for most of his life, aided by the fact he’s an excellent sight reader. In his 50s, he became inspired to push himself to a greater understanding of the instrument by learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23, a tremendously challenging piece both technically and musically, one of the hardest piano compositions in the canon to master. He gave himself one year to do it, practicing 20 minutes a day. The goal was to not just play the Ballade, which he could get away with by skating over the tricky parts or creating workarounds or fudging on the fingering and pedaling, but to learn it properly.
Here’s the kicker: Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian, one of the most distinguished newspapers in the world. It’s not unusual for him to leave work after midnight and in the morning attend a breakfast meeting. He travels the world for speaking engagements and panels, fields hundreds of daily emails and is always on-call running a major newspaper with “a hum of low-level stress much of the time, with periodic eruptions of great tension.”( He tells a fascinating story of flying to Tripoli to secure the release of a Guardian journalist held in prison somewhere in Libya.) Little did he know that the year he committed to learning the Ballade would be an unusually dramatic year for the newspaper due to the publication partnership with WikiLeaks and breaking the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It was also the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese tsunami. In other words, if you think you don’t have time to pursue your passion in life, think again. It’s one of the major messages in this book: “Essentially, you do have the time; you just don’t realise (sic) it,” Rusbridger writes.
There are additional thoughtful points made in Rusbridger’s Play It Again. For example, he explores the concept that social success alone in one’s life — status, career, family, financial gain, etc. — is not enough for a satisfying life, and middle-age can be a time to reclaim ignored passions. He tells us progress is not always linear, and breakthroughs come with patience.
The book is formatted as diary entries, a perfect way to bring us into his daily newspaper life, as well as his musical life. It’s a balance of politics and culture, personal and public lives, as well as a venue that allows Rusbridger to share interviews with experts on topics such as memory (he struggles to memorize music), the difference between amateur and professional pianists, the recording industry’s effect on perfection required by concert pianists and the future of newspapers.
Granted, this book isn’t for everyone — if you don’t read music and/or don’t have an interest in the piano, your eyes will glaze over in the long technical passages about the Ballade, let alone the interviews with famous pianists, including Daniel Barenboim, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia. For me, it was a chance to sink into a world I’ve missed.
I walked away from the American Conservatory after a rather difficult performance of the first movement of Schumann’s A minor piano concerto, but I didn’t walk away from the piano forever, like the British executive on the elevator. More like Rusbridger before he took on the Ballade, I find myself endlessly replaying the pieces I know, and not all that well. I’m not inclined to take on the Ballade, but there’s the Bach Toccata in D major BWV912 I want to play. To Rusbridger’s point, I told a piano tuner I couldn’t play it, and he said, “Yes you can.” I said, “No, I can’t.” Back and forth we comically argued beside my piano, until the tuner said what I knew he was going to say: “You just have to commit the time to it.” Play It Again is about just that, with Rusbridger reminding us to get on with one’s life ambitions.
May 16, 2014
In Jon Sealy’s debut novel, the men of Castle County South Carolina like their whiskey. It doesn’t matter the beverage is illegal. The alcoholic buzz takes the edge off the tough economic times of 1932. The country has been dry since January 1920, when the 18th amendment went into effect outlawing alcoholic beverages; however, thanks to Larthan Tull, a.k.a. the whiskey baron, the men are well supplied.
Tull is a drug lord of sorts, a Mafioso type monopolizing the region’s illegal liquor trade, working closely with Aunt Lou, who looks more like a spinster aunt than the largest distributor of liquor in the Carolinas. Sheriff Furman Chambers turns a blind eye to the baron’s activities, until he can’t, when two of Tull’s runners — young boys — are shot dead on Highway 9 outside Tull’s speakeasy. Tull’s deputy claims “Mary Jane” Hopewell did it, only the sheriff knows the drunk no-good doesn’t have it in his DNA to pull the trigger like that.
What unfolds is not a whodunit. We know early on how and why the killing happened. The murders are catalysts in a larger, atmospheric story about bootlegging in the south during harsh, violent times. Farmers sell their corn crops to Tull to keep their farms solvent and others, who lost their farms, go to work in the local cotton mill and scrimp to make ends meet. As the sheriff’s brother so eloquently states to his law-enforcing sibling:
“There’s laws from God, there’s laws from man, and there’s the law of the economy, and those things don’t always agree, especially when you’ve got a banker to pay.”
It is just such philosophy that drives Mary Jane to encroach on Tull’s turf with a special tasting whiskey he’s brewed on the riverfront property of his girlfriend, the widow Abigail Coleman; however, you just don’t mess with Tull’s business. Mary Jane learns this the hard way — the boys who are gunned down had agreed to be his runners — and he goes into hiding. Tull meanwhile pays threatening and destructive visits to Abigail, and the Feds arrive in town looking for a way to get Tull in jail once and for all. Mary Jane’s family — his brother, sister-in-law and nephews — have no idea what’s going on. They’ve got problems of their own, squeezed to the breaking point with life’s stresses, including the oldest boy Quinn sneaking off to “spark” with Tull’s beautiful daughter, Evelyn.
Sealy writes powerfully on several levels, drawing us in with a palpable sense of place, a violent time period and a quick pace of events that sustain incertitude to the very end. The characters, in a few scenes, come across as cut-outs of what we’d expect, but that’s an isolated complaint considering their circumstances add to the story’s pull — Tull as a soulless business man who needs his daughter; Joe Hopewell, Mary Jane’s brother, held together by a thin wire of courage in his adversity; and the burned-out sheriff, worrying about his marriage and grieving for the sons he lost in World War I.
The sheriff closes in on the truth of what happened on Highway 9, and Larthan Tull closes in on Mary Jane. What brings the story to its explosive conclusion is a clever entangling of the people in this South Carolina mill town. It’s unexpected and flat-out unforgettable, making this impressive first novel written by Jon Sealy a reason to jump up and shout “bravo!”
May 8, 2014
Winners of the Mystery Writers of America 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and TV published or produced in 2013, were announced last week. Their categories include not just best novel but also best first novel and best paperback original. Also, they give an award to a best short story, something you don’t typically see in national awards.
Each year, I vow to read a few of the nominees ahead of the award ceremony but never seem to select those that win; however, this year, I got it right with my reading picks in three of the categories. (You can see the full list of all awards given last week, including the nominees, on The Edgars.com.)
Best Novel: Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger
Ordinary Grace is an enveloping literary novel with a mystery at its center. The warm yet complicated life of a preacher’s family and the drama of a small town from a boy’s perspective make the reading seductive and “unputdownable.” Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, narrator 53-year-old Frank Drum looks back to that summer when he was 13 and driven by curiosity to get involved in the adult world unfolding around him. This includes a wide exposure to death, which, in separate incidents, happens accidentally, naturally and criminally.
The first death is that of young Bobby Cole, run over by a train on the railroad tracks where he often played. The terrible accident hovers over the hot summer days with police officer Doyle wondering if it was indeed an accident. Frank, with his younger brother Jake, wanders to the tracks and the nearby river to investigate on his own and discovers the second death of the summer, an itinerant man whom Frank’s father buries in one of the best places in the cemetery. Frank’s father is the town’s Methodist minister. His patience, adherence to truth and spiritual steadiness epitomize the ordinary grace one can live day in and day out, even when tragedy occurs. That tragedy is the most shocking death of the summer, at the heart of this moving story.
William Kent Krueger’s style is pitch-perfect in creating engaging action tucked within a nostalgic tone. Much of that action we are advised of by Frank’s compulsion to eavesdrop, which eventually becomes transparent as a writer’s technique. At least, it did for me, but this awareness of technique didn’t interrupt my engagement with the story, nor change my admiration for it – the eavesdropping occurs naturally within the plot, and effectively. So far, Ordinary Grace is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, a kind of story you fall into and don’t want to leave once you’ve begun reading it.
Best Paperback Original: The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood
I purchased this book a few months ago, after the nominees were announced, but it’s still waiting to be read. I tend to hesitate when picking up a book written in the present tense, which this one is, for reasons I can’t really grab onto other than I have to be in the mood for that immediate kind of narration. Once I begin reading, I’m fine – the tense doesn’t bother me – but I have to jump in. It’s like hesitating before you jump into the cold water of a Canadian lake for that wonderful swim.
Alex Marwood’s story is about two girls who meet for the first time when they are 11 years old, and by the end of the day they are charged with murder. They meet again, 25 years later, about which the book description says: “… it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that dark day so many years ago. Now with new, vastly different lives – and unknowing families to protect – will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?”
What made me select this book as my nominee pick was the sense I’d be surprised by the ending and gripped to the very end. Considering it won the Edgar, likely that’s the case, and if I don’t get to it before summer begins, The Wicked Girls definitely will go in the proverbial beach bag.
Best Short Story: The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly
This short story is published by Mysterious Bookshop as #12 in its series of bibliomysteries. It’s a delight, a story about Mr. Berger who lives an ordered life with books as his constant companion – a life in which the most difficult decision is selecting the next book to read. <big sigh!> When his mother dies, he moves into her house in a new town and becomes acutely aware of his isolation, having chosen the world of books rather than the company of people all his life. He begins to think he may be going insane when, one night, taking his usual walk along a railroad track and then waiting for the evening train to pass, he is sure he sees a woman commit suicide by throwing herself under the train. Only, there are no remains after the train passes. He sees her on another night, again attempting suicide by train, and assumes she is a woman with an Anna Karenina fixation. His pursuit of her leads him to The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between the worlds of our beloved books and daily reality disappears.
Those who, like Mr. Berger, enjoy books as a constant companion, as well as book collectors, will relish a plot dedicated to their passion, and also enjoy the brief descriptions of valuable classics in their first editions. The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository is printed by the Mysterious Bookshop. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls via Amazon.
April 15, 2014
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.
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.
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.”
April 7, 2014
I 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.”
March 4, 2014
When 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.
His 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.