The time of your life

December 12, 2014

Time Present and Time PastThe 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.

Dora BruderThe 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 GodHorses 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 KillybegsReturn 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 SureFor 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 NightNothing 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 MozartSaving 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 ForeverBrief 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 FormLife 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 SystemThe 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.

A woman who never compromised

November 11, 2014

Florence Gordon by Brian Moore

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.

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 LawtonThen 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 by Pico IyerThe 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 ToewsAll 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.”


The Zone of Interest by Martin AmisSeveral years ago, in the late 1990s, an acquaintance I met at a conference suggested we each read a favorite book recommended by the other. For him, I proposed Francisco Goldman’s debut novel The Long Night of White Chickens, published in 1992. It came to mind immediately — a story that captivated me with its plot about a woman who runs an orphanage in Guatemala and the mystery of her murder. For me, he proposed The Information by Martin Amis. I hadn’t read anything by this acclaimed British author, who had by then published many novels, including the Booker short-listed Time’s Arrow, so I looked forward to this new book and its comedic approach to two novelists at odds with one another.

The Information turned out to be so far from what I would call a favorite in my reading world that I promptly turned to another Amis novel, thinking it was just a wrong fit. But Amis’s Other People, about a woman who’s lost her identity and, after that, London Fields and Night Train didn’t resonate with me either, although I recognized the brilliance of Martin Amis, universally lauded for his linguistic dexterity and mind-twisting inventiveness. Still, I recall trudging through the complexity of London Fields, which Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times described as: “A comic murder mystery, an apocalyptic satire, a scatological meditation on love and death and nuclear winter…by turns lyrical and obscene, colloquial and rhapsodic.”

The Long Night of White Chickens didn’t go over well, either.

Other People by Martin AmisI haven’t read Martin Amis since that time, until now, with the release of his new book The Zone of Interest igniting a desire to jump in and try again. The novel is described by the publisher as a love story, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s heart-sinking romance. It’s more sexual desire that becomes an obsession that then becomes love never physically requited between a Nazi liaison officer, who is Angelus Thomsen, a self-proclaimed stud, and Hannah Doll. The setting is a German concentration camp called the Zone of Interest (Auschwitz otherwise named), and Hannah is the kommandant’s wife.

Similar to Time’s Arrow, about a Holocaust doctor/war criminal, The Zone of Interest takes the Nazi viewpoint. Chapters alternate between Thomsen, Kommandant Paul Doll and a Sonderkommando named Szmul, who parries with Doll to keep his life steady under the horrific circumstances. Szmul persists in his grotesque Sonder role for three reasons: to bear witness, exact mortal vengeance and save or prolong a life. He’s engaged by Doll to spy on Hannah, whom Doll suspects is having an affair first with Thomsen, and then with the man she loved prior to marrying Doll. Meanwhile, there are mishaps with arriving transports, the selection process and an overload of cremated bodies. Also going on: Thomsen, who is cast as the fictional nephew of Hitler’s secretary, oversees the construction of the Buna-Werke, a nearby synthetic rubber and fuel factory that has its own challenges. Doll and Thomsen wrestle with the politics of “the Deliverer” (you know who, with that silly mustache)

London Fields by Martin AmisIt goes without saying that the Holocaust is grim subject matter, but keep in mind this is Martin Amis, whose signature narrative brilliance and wit is very much in play here, as is the “lyrical and obscene.” Bottom line, The Zone of Interest is a satire, and you have to go into reading it knowing Amis is using humor, exaggeration and ridicule to illustrate, in the extreme, the Nazi crime of the Final Solution. Otherwise, the novel comes across as hugely offensive.

In the beginning, I couldn’t bear it — the sexual banter between Thomsen and his friend Boris, a Waffen-SS colonel, mixed with blithe commentary about transports to the camp, as if they’re in casual, friendly conversation over coffee; the comedic perspective of events surrounding the selection ramp; and Paul Doll ridiculously prancing among his lackeys, as if in scenes from a sitcom. And then the thoughts of the characters, which are hard to take, designed to showcase their idiocy and lack of self-awareness, such as Doll thinking about Szmul and the Sonderkommandos: “You know, I never cease to marvel at the abyss of moral destitution to which certain human beings are willing to descend…” The comment is suppose to make us smile because it’s a reverse onto himself, but the smiling just doesn’t feel good.

Time's Arrow by Martin AmisNot all is sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Hannah stands firm in her horror of the surrounding reality, and Thomsen attempts to sabotage the progress of the Buna-Werke factory; however, their anti-sympathy is too little to make a narrative impact. And it’s here I think satirizing the Final Solution is an un-winning endeavor, unless it’s so wickedly profound we come away shattered with new insight, which doesn’t happen with The Zone of Interest. It’s not really that great of a love story, either, which prevails, carrying through to the end of the war and the book, with Thomsen’s continued desire for Hannah. But Hannah cannot see Thomsen outside the framework of the inhumanity in which he participated. Their relationship rings true, but it still feels more like a misguided story of desire and not love.

Should I read Martin Amis’s acclaimed Time’s Arrow? Maybe I’ll connect with his fiction in that novel. Why am I not falling down the rabbit hole of that which creates a Martin Amis cult follower? The fellow reader I met at the conference kept a framed photo of Amis and himself on his office desk that was taken at a book signing.

I eventually settled into The Zone of Interest, employing emotional distance and embracing the satire. I understood and marveled at the literary skill, but that one-of-a-kind Amis talent — experienced also in his other aforementioned novels — doesn’t drive me to want to read his books. I don’t get involved in them. Instead, I seem only to experience the brilliant work. I also seem to be chasing Martin Amis, thinking the one Martin Amis book for me is the next one. (Perhaps The Rachel Papers?) At this rate, I’ll get Martin Amis under my reading belt, despite myself.

The National Book Award longlists have been announced for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. As is usual for these types of lists, announcing books in the running for the awards, they provide great reading suggestions. Below is a quick look at the fiction nominees. You’ll find short stories, dystopia, World War II, the life of an Iowa farm family and more. To get all the longlists, visit the National Book Foundation.

The finalists (shortlists) will be announced exclusively on NPR’s Morning Edition on October 15. The winners will be announced November 19 in New York City.

An Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
This is a portrait of a woman’s life in the Middle East (Beirut), focusing on the fictional 72-year-old translator Aaliya Sohbi who lives alone with her books. The publisher describes the story as a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis. Publisher’s Weekly in a starred review says: “Alameddine’s most glorious passages are those that simply relate Aalyia’s thoughts, which read like tiny, wonderful essays.”

The UnAmericansThe UnAmericans: Stories by Molly Antopol
A debut story collection with plot lines focusing on critical moments in the 20th century. Kirkus Reviews says Antopol is a writer to watch. I love this comment by Meg Wolitzer on NPR about the stories: “They’ll make you nostalgic, not just for earlier times, but for another era in short fiction. A time when writers such as Bernard Malamud, and Issac Bashevis Singer and Grace Paley roamed the earth.”

ThunderstruckThunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken
Another story collection, this one by the author known for her debut novel The Giant’s House that was a 1996 National Book Award finalist.  The New York Times review says, “…her wisdom and wit have a moral dimension that deepens our sympathy for her straying souls, encouraging us to picture ourselves in even their most improbable predicaments.” Publisher’s Weekly gives it a starred review, as does Kirkus Reviews.

Redeployment by Phil KlayRedeployment by Phil Klay
Yet another story collection among the contenders, this one’s a piercing look at U.S. Marines involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Klay digs deeply, honestly and convincingly into the inner lives of his men and enlightens our understanding of the Marine combat experience. Via “The morally bruising battlefield” written here on TLC: “It’s impressive, enduring fictional truth.”

OrfeoOrfeo 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. Powers won the National Book Award in 2006 for The Echomaker.

AnthonyDoerr_novelAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Ohio author Anthony Doerr’s newest novel has held a sustaining place on The New York Times best-seller list this year. It’s a World War II story about the converging lives of a German soldier and a blind French girl in occupied France 1944. The book industry’s forecasting magazines — Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal – all give Doerr’s book starred reviews.

Lila by Marilyn RobinsonLila by Marilyn Robinson
This is Robinson’s third novel set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. It focuses on Reverend Ames’ young bride, Lila, whom Robinson introduced in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. The publisher describes the new book as “an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe and wonder.” Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times calls it “flawed but poignant.”

Some LuckSome Luck by Jane Smiley
This is the first book in a trilogy about the Langdon Iowa farm family, Walter and Rosanna and their five children. Spanning 1920 through the early 1950s, each chapter covers a single year. Publisher’s Weekly gives it a starred review as does Kirkus Reviews, which says it’s: “An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.”

Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van by John Darnielle
The story is about a 17-year-old-boy with a grossly disfigured face and the role-playing game he invents about a post-apocalyptic America. A recent New York Times review describes the book as a “strange and involving novel…about alienation and despair and the search for meaning.” The book’s publisher says it “unfolds in reverse until we arrive at both the beginning and the climax.”

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A dystopian novel about a pandemic that wipes out society as we know it. After the catastrophe, a traveling group of actors and musicians performs Shakespeare in towns around the Great Lakes Region. I’m one-third of the way through the book and find it gripping. Early chapters about the uncontrollable virus overcrowding hospitals and taking lives is chilling. Starred review from Kirkus Reviews but not from Publisher’s Weekly.

The mission of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards, as stated on the Foundation website, is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.

Barricuda by Christos TsliokasIn this new novel by best-selling Australian author Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), an uplifting, redemptive scene provides the book’s title. It takes place in the great assembly hall of a posh Melbourne prep school when protagonist Danny Kelly is called to the podium by the principal. The room erupts into foot-stomping cheers, lauding Danny’s first place win in an Australian swimming championship. Students chant, Barracuda, Barracuda! It’s a spine-tingling moment that raises this working-class boy to a level of acceptance among his wealthy, contemptuous peers. Australia’s class issues, as well as its multi-ethnic demographic, are hallmark themes for Tsiolkas — Danny is the son of a Scottish truck driver and a Greek hairdresser.

Swimming is everything to this teenager on scholarship at this expensive school where he trains with Frank Torma, a no-nonsense coach who recognizes the makings of a champion. Danny proves him right, excelling above all others on the school swim team. His goal is to win gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and his mantra that he is stronger, faster, better than anyone else keeps him steady among all that goes on in his life — the taunts and exclusions at school, his father’s disparaging remarks and the confusion he feels between the two class worlds.

Tsiolkas’s narrative method employs the teen-aged and young adult Danny Kelly to tell the story in alternating chapters taking place between 1994 and 2012. These chapters are so seamlessly knitted together you barely feel the change in time, rather move fluidly with the rhythmic flow, similar to how Danny describes moving through and becoming one with the water. Back and forth the narrative pulls us. We engage with Danny in his school days of becoming an A-class swimmer, winning Torma’s praise and favoritism and becoming chummy with the team’s golden boy Martin Taylor (who started the barracuda chant in the assembly hall). And we engage with Dan (what Danny prefers to be called later) reading classic literature in a one-room apartment, living in Glasgow with his lover Clyde, stocking shelves in a supermarket and working with disabled adults.

The scenes are colorful, dramatic, moving; and as we read them we’re gripped with the simmering tension of knowing something bad happens to Danny who failed to achieve his dream. Early on in the story, well before the great assembly hall scene, the adult Dan confesses to Clyde he’s been to prison for almost killing a man. Tsiolkas masterfully uses this early knowledge to hook us emotionally into Danny and Dan’s situations and the mystery of what went wrong. We are so deeply involved with this character that when we finally read the answer, it hits hard. I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and talk to Danny as his downfall unfolds, convince him to have greater courage and integrity: You don’t have to go that route. You can recover. You can live your dream and be the champion. And then it gets worse, an act of violence that’s painful to read, bringing the two class worlds together in a crash.

Barracuda, in its deep dive into Danny’s soul, is superbly crafted. It’s not just a gripping story, but also an important one, providing a heart-wrenching viewpoint into what it’s like for a talented young athlete to dream of being a champion — to dream and then to fail. Dan strives to outlive Danny’s shame by seeking truth and forgiveness, something his friends, family and enemies don’t readily embrace. They still can only see Danny Kelly, the swimming phenomenon who let them down. They don’t understand, after all he’s been through, Dan simply wants to be a good person. It’s a goal that’s harder to attain, under his circumstances, than the gold of an Olympic medal, and he knows it’s more valuable.

We’re entering publishing’s top season, when they bring out literature’s notable and best-selling authorial names. This fall, we’ve got Irish mystery writer Tana French, British author of Atonement fame Ian McEwan, American crime novelist James Ellroy, popular historical fiction writer Sarah Waters and the incomparable British novelist Martin Amis releasing new novels. There are others, but these few particularly caught my attention. Below are brief summaries of their books. Also included, a sneak peek at Colm Tóibín’s new novel coming out early October.

The Secret Place by Tana FrenchThe Secret Place by Tana French
Tana French’s new detective novel is set for release this coming Tuesday, Sept. 2, and already getting rave reviews. It’s a boarding school mystery ignited by a note posted to the school’s anonymous tell-all bulletin board (called the Secret Place) that says someone knows the identity of a boy’s killer. French is known to use characters from previous novels and in this one brings back Detective Stephen Moran and the Mackay family from Faithful Place.  Publisher’s Weekly said, “French stealthily spins a web of teenage secrets with a very adult crime at the center.”

The Children Act by Ian McEwanThe Children Act by Ian McEwan
Set for release on Sept. 9, Ian McEwan’s new novel takes on the issue of religious belief preventing medical care for a 17-year-old boy who could die without it. The British judge hearing the difficult case is simultaneously struggling with her husband’s marital infidelity. This promises to be another one of McEwan’s best. For book collectors: A special limited signed first edition of The Children Act is available. All full leather copies are now sold out, but quarter leathers are still available.  Scroll down the page on Mr. McEwan’s website to get details.

Perfidia by James EllroyPerfidia by James Ellroy
Also set for release Sept. 9, this novel begins a new crime series by James Ellroy, well-known for his L.A. Quartet that includes Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. Perfidia is the first novel in what will now be a Second L.A. Quartet series. Characters from Ellroy’s previous novels will appear here in their younger years, as this is a prequel to the L.A. Quartet #1. Perfidia begins the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor and unfolds through the following days in December 1941. Rival investigators bump up against one another trying to solve the death of four members of a Japanese family, who may have had foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Previews and James Ellroy’s letter on his literary agency’s website point to a complex, involving crime novel. Note that its page count is just north of 700 pages.

The Paying Guests by Sarah WatersThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Planned for release Sept. 16, this 560-page historical novel takes place in London, 1922, with a debt-ridden mother and daughter forced to rent rooms in their large, genteel home. Forbidden romance plus a shocking act of violence drive the novel’s tension. The Paying Guests is described as one of those novels that keeps you guessing until the end regarding narrative outcome. Sarah Waters is a three-time Man Booker prize short-listed author for her previous novels Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger.

The Zone of Interest by Martin AmisThe Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
Publisher’s Weekly begins its forecast for this new novel by describing it as “an absolute soul-crusher of a book.” I wouldn’t let that deter you, though. They also gave the book a starred review — as it’s received from every other forecast I’ve come across — and say it’s “the brilliant latest from Amis.” Just be prepared for a devastating love story. Amis draws again on a World War II theme that provided the narrative fulcrum for his earlier novel, Time’s Arrow. The setting is a German concentration camp, and the primary narrator is the camp’s commandant. Two other narrators also help tell the story, a Jewish inmate and the fictional nephew of the real-life Nazi official Martin Bowman, Hitler’s private secretary.

Nora Webster by Colm ToibinNora Webster by Colm Tóibín
This is an October release (10/7) I can’t help but mention here among the September books by acclaimed Irish author Colm Tóibín. The story focuses on a young Irish woman, recently widowed, having lost the love of her life. She lives in a small village in Ireland, and she’s overwhelmed with everyone’s condolences and her grief, let alone the needs of her children. She yearns to find her way back into the world. Previews for Nora Webster portend a powerful character study.


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.

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley NahmJacob 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.

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 RainHistory 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 WorldThe 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 OurselvesWe 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.

OrfeoOrfeo 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 HourTo 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 WakeThe 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 DogThe 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 NorthThe 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 ClocksThe 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 NichollsUs 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.

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
A family story set in Calcutta 1967. The Guardian describes it as “engrossing”. No listed U.S. publication date. Visit the author’s website.

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.

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" by John W. DeanThe 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 for videos about the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s resignation speech.)

"The Most Dangerous Book"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" by Francisco GoldmanThe 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.”

"The Hour of Lead" by Bruce HolbertWhen 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.


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'HaraTen 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 MalamudA 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 StaffordThe 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.



The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.S.

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.

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.K.

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.

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.

"Play It Again" by Alan RusbridgerRusbridger “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 BarenboimEmanuel Ax and Murray Perahia. For me, it was a chance to sink into a world I’ve missed.

Play It Again interior pages

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.


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