The Spy Who Came In From the ColdMy favorite way to read a classic novel is in a used, hardbound, battered edition that’s been read and handled by many readers, its pages soft from wear, yellowed, dog-eared and smudged; its dust jacket nicked and bruised; and its edges bumped and dented. And of course, there’s that sweet, musty old book smell transporting me into library stacks and used bookstores. You can buy the scent now in soy candles, but I don’t think that works without the experience of the old book you can flip through and touch. It’s just not the same.

I recently finished John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the ColdI picked up an old, handled library copy at a used book fair. Library-cancelled stamps abound on the end papers, and the checkout card pocket is ripped off. Someone’s name is written in sloppy script at the top of the first page. The interior pages smell musty and feel soft to the touch, worn from longtime turning. The textures gave me the feeling I had in my hand a book that was read by many, starting in 1964 when it was first published in the United States. Richard Burton starred in the 1965 movie that followed. He played the protagonist Alec Leamas, a long-standing, experienced British spy who’s recalled from his post in Berlin after he loses one more agent, killed by the East Germans, at the Berlin Wall.

The Spy_library cancels

 

Leamas believes this is the end of his career with British Intelligence, that it’s time to come in from the cold; however, he’s given one more assignment to dupe the East Germans into thinking he’s a defector, in order to drive them toward thinking the mastermind and head of their own spy agency is a double agent.

I’m of the same opinion as author Graham Greene whose back-of-the-book blurb on my copy says, “The best spy story I have ever read.” The New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in 1964 agreed, adding: “Whether The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is better than Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden or Mr. Greene’s own The Confidential Agent is inconsequential. What matters is that it belongs on the same shelf.”

The Spy_interior pages

 

How much more fun it is to have read this 1960’s best-seller in its original form than in a new paperback. I also intend to read an old copy of Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came: no dust jacket on this book, the binding cracked, the pages yellowed and bookishly fragrant. Tucked inside is a map of Malabar Farm State Park, Bromfield’s famous Ohio home, and someone’s typed list of books written by Bromfield. This classic novel became a movie with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy in 1939. A remake came out in 1955 with Richard Burton and Lana Turner.

And then there’s a copy I have of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, a 1935 copy inscribed by my grandmother Margaret to her husband, my grandfather William H. Rose, on August 5, 1935: no dust jacket, frayed and faded binding cloth, and pages that feel smooth as silk. Isn’t this what old books are all about? They remind us they once sat in other libraries and in other hands, providing a literary sense of eternal time. PBS aired Galsworthy’s story on Masterpiece Theater.

 

Winter by Christopher NicholsonThe first woman in England to play the leading stage role of Tess in Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles acted in an amateur theater near Hardy’s home in Dorset County on the coast of the English Channel. Hardy directed the 1924 production and insisted the young woman be cast for the part because of her resemblance to her mother, whose unforgettable beauty inspired Hardy to create Tess more than 30 years earlier, in 1891. The radiant actress, Gertrude Bugler, was the very incarnation of Tess, and Hardy became infatuated with her, although he didn’t act on his desires — Hardy was 84 years old, and Gertrude was in her 20’s, a wife and mother to a new baby. Nevertheless, Hardy wrote poems about Gertrude, including one imagining their elopement. His affection made his second wife, Florence, distraught with jealousy.

Christopher Nicholson has written an absorbing novel about this historic emotional tryst, using alternating perspectives of Hardy (who at the time was the wealthiest author in England), Gertrude and Florence. He seduces us with a lyric narrative about desires of the heart that never age. Also, he atmospherically evokes the place and time with elegant images and rich writing that’s not fussy, such as when he writes: “The broth steamed, and the silver of the spoons shone in the candlelight.”

The story takes place the winter Gertrude plays Tess in the local theater. It opens with Hardy, over tea at his house with Gertrude, wanting to recommend the beauty for the same leading role in a London theater, giving Gertrude the break of a lifetime. Needless to say, she’s thrilled by the opportunity. The novel’s dramatic arc rises and falls under the consequences that result from this simple offer — and with surprising intensity, primarily due to Florence’s anxious personality that’s captured with realistic pitch and verve.

Preoccupied with her poor health and distraught by the darkness of their country home, the 45-year-old Florence desperately and repeatedly implores her husband to trim the surrounding, overgrown pine trees. Hardy refuses, convinced these trees he planted when he built the cottage have human qualities. She feels shunned by his lack of sensitivity and love for his literary work. When Florence notices his attraction to Gertrude, she begins another, self-pitying rant that belittles the actress, attempting to convince Hardy the girl is neither beautiful nor talented enough to hold a London stage. “All you think of is her. I am no one, no one, no one,” she says.

Gertrude is an unaware innocent caught in the middle of the Hardys’ marital drama. She knows Thomas Hardy cares for her but believes it’s nothing more than admiration for her stage talent. Unfortunately, she pays a life-changing price without ever having done anything wrong other than exist as a beautiful and talented actress. Hardy dies three years later, and Gertrude brings us the conclusion in a calm voice that expresses a perspective of understanding and forgiveness.

The talented Christopher Nicholson successfully evokes a time in Thomas Hardy’s life that may be little known to readers in a story that is deeply affecting — including the real, famous moment when Hardy said to Gertrude at their last meeting, “If anyone asks you if you knew Thomas Hardy, say, ‘Yes, he was my friend.’ ”

 

What would you say?

January 5, 2016

the-6-41-to-parisThere are ordinary moments from my youth that remain as clear to me as the moment they happened. Why, I’m not sure, other than they impacted me with some unresolved wonder, such as a few minutes I experienced on the subway during graduate school in Chicago. I was in my late 20’s, working and going to school. A fellow student boarded the train and took the seat beside me. I was infatuated with him, often staring at him during classes. There were many other seats available on the train, and I think taking the seat beside me was his attempt to get to know me. I remember the gray evening light, the cold in the poorly heated car, and also how frozen I felt emotionally, petrified in my shyness. I couldn’t say anything, not even hello, let alone look at him and smile. The train shuttled along. He also didn’t say a word. And then, he rose from his seat and got off the train. Why didn’t I say something?

In The 6:41 to Paris, a man sits beside a woman on a train. In this instance, there are no other seats available. This simple act ignites Jean-Philippe Blondel’s captivating, brief novel that builds tension with each character’s inability to acknowledge the other. They sit in silence, paralyzed by uncertainty and insecurity, as I was. When they were 20 years old, Cécile Douffaut and Philippe Leduc dated. Back then, 27 years ago, Cécile was plain, “nothing striking”, while Philippe was handsome, popular and cocky. They came together in a flirting fluke, and what kept them together was Cécile’s unpredictability and her refreshing nerve that intrigued Philippe. All along, he intended to dump her. Three or four months later, during a trip to London, Philippe’s arrogance demolished the affair with emotional cruelty.

Think of yourself in such a situation: Cécile and Philippe are now 47 years old. Each recognizes the other but doesn’t know if the other recognizes him/her. Philippe is now a balding, divorced TV and stereo salesman with a middle-aged paunch who knows he settled for less in life. Cécile is now an attractive, successful, married entrepreneur who pushed herself to rise above her humiliating youth yet still wrestles with feelings of inferiority. What would you say? For the non-stop ride, neither speaks ups. Philippe is ashamed about his self-centered actions those many years ago, and also depressed about his unsuccessful life. Cécile finds herself still enraged by what happened in London.

The story simmers with tension over who’s going to speak first, as the train travels for an hour and a half from Troyes, a town southeast of Paris, to the capital city. Blondel cleverly pieces together his characters’ individual life stories, with each thinking about their worthiness as spouses and parents, their statuses in their work and, most moving of all, their failure so long ago. Their inner voices in self-conversation capture relatable human concerns and emotions that draw on our compassion. We read to find out what happened in the past and if, in the present, Cécile and Philippe will finally say something to each other, as I wish I had done long ago in Chicago.

The 6:41 to Paris is translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

My friends and I gather for dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, we walk up the street to attend services at a neighborhood church. This gathering has become a beloved annual tradition, and part of that tradition is a book I specially select for each friend. Here are the ones I gave this year, and why.

Joan of Arc by Kathryn HarrisonJoan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison

This brought a whoop of joy when unwrapped, telling me I’d hit the mark, which is not always an easy thing to accomplish, even for a book critic with a wide, sweeping scope of available books. My friend is not only a successful entrepreneur but also an ordained minister, who’s very well read in all things spiritual. Nevertheless, even though this story has been told many times by great authors throughout the ages of literature, I thought this new take on it would interest her. The Boston Globe wrote this:

“What inspired Kathryn Harrison to suit up and step into this intimidating ring? Harrison offered this clue in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, ‘Joan of Arc: Enduring Power.’ The mythic heroine, who was burned at the stake, ‘was feverish in her determination to succeed at what was, by anyone’s measure, a preposterous mission,’ Harrison writes. ‘[She] defied every limitation placed on a woman of the late Middle Ages.’”

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is described as a weaving together of historical fact, myth, folklore, scripture, artistic representations and centuries of scholarly and critical interpretation.

Baking Food 52Baking: 60 Sensational Treats You Can Pull Off in a Snap by the Editors of Food52

A departure from the stories I typically give, this selection came from my visit to Kitchen Arts & Letters, an inspiring, small bookstore between 93rd and 94th streets on Lexington Avenue in New York City. My friend who loves to bake, and brings the most delicious desserts to our friend gatherings, came to mind. So I asked the store clerk to help me make a selection for her: something different but easy, yet enticing for a knowledgeable baker. Baking is what he pulled from the shelf, a collection of recipes that fall under categories such as special occasion cakes, everyday cakes, custardy cakes and puddings, fruit desserts and savory baked goods, to name a few. They are from the Food52 editors who“believe that if you want to eat better, and you want to help change our food system, you need to cook. Maybe not all the time, but some.”

The Paper Garden by Molly PeacockThe Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Molly Peacock

I gave this book to a friend who came to the Christmas Eve dinner for the first time this year. I’m  not sure she’s a reader, and I’m not even sure I selected well for her, but something drove me to pick Molly Peacock’s biography. It’s a gorgeously produced and moving story about an ordinary woman in the 18th century whose late-in-life artistic work is now in the British Museum. I wrote about it here on TLC in 2012, beginning with this:

“Imagine everything you’ve done in your life — all the activities you’ve pursued that didn’t seem to have any significance beyond daily life — evolving into your finest work at the end of your life: beautifully, miraculously, unbidden and without purpose. That is the story of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788).”

My friend, in recent years, has courageously faced challenges in her work life that limited her ability to fully use her skills and expertise. She was patient and hopeful in a situation most people would allow to depress and defeat them. This true story seemed to be of my friend’s story, and so it came to mind as the perfect gift.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena FerranteMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I was a little worried the friend I thought of for this book might already have discovered Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan Series. She likes books about evolving relationships, and this is a perfect fit for her. Fortunately, it was a surprise. My Brilliant Friend is first in a four-novel series that has captured readers, including myself. It is the story of two best friends growing up in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. Together, they navigate the tough streets, but when it comes to school, Elena continues on into upper grades while Lila goes to work in her father’s shoe shop. Nevertheless, they remain closely tied to one another, yet their friendship struggles with their emerging individuality and independence. Below, in an earlier TLC blog post, you can read about the fourth and final book in the series that won critic’s attention this year.

The Fox and The Star by Coralie Bickford-SmithThe Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith

This is another departure (a children’s book), and for a friend who would’ve been at the table but this year traveled during the holiday. Before she left, I gave her this gorgeous children’s book, described as a tale for all ages. It won Waterstones Book of the Year 2015 award, surpassing such popular novels as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, let alone Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life that was nominated for the Man Booker and National Book awards. Waterstones is the largest bookselling chain in the United Kingdom. The story is about a fox whose only friend is a star, which lights the fox’s way in life. One night, the star does not appear, and fox huddles, overcome with sadness, in his den until it’s time to search for his friend. “Have you seen my star?” he asks the trees in the forest. From the author, in The Guardian:

“’I was thinking about how in life, if you hold on to something too tightly, you lose it, so to love something you have to let it go, and I wrote the story around that. It relates to so many situations – everyone has suffered – and it came together for me with losing my mum at an early age,’ said Bickford-Smith. ‘Children seem to love the idea of the friends and the crazy illustrations, while adults like the concept of things being tough, but coming out the other side.’”

I selected The Fox and the Star for this friend because we’ve shared together the grief experience, her for a friend and me for my father. Author Coralie Bickford-Smith says inspiration for the book came from William Blake’s poem “Eternity” and from the designs of William Morris. Below is a page spread from the book.

20151220_141845

 

It’s that time of the year when media proclaim the best books published over the past 12 months. I’m not sure the lists offer much more than a chance for readers to check off the ones they’ve read and ones they’ve missed. Are these lists really representing the best books published in 2015? What about the books the organization didn’t review, maybe one from a small press that didn’t get noticed? Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers comes to mind, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The New York Times didn’t review it.

A favorite task I love to do with end-of-year best fiction lists is cross-reference a few to see if one novel stands out as an agreed upon favorite. This year, I worked with lists from The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post and the The Boston Globe. I worked with the longer “notable fiction books” lists rather than the top ten lists, which mix all genres; however, I did include the top ten list from The Washington Post. Their top 10 selections don’t appear in their long list of bests, while The New York Times does include theirs.

These five publications all agreed on, not one, but two books, both listed among their best/notable fiction for 2015. NPR’s critic Maureen Corrigan also claimed the two among her year’s favorites. Here they are:

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia BerlinA Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin
Laird Hunt on August 26 in The Washington Post wrote: “Through measured use of sentence fragments, unexpected word choices and fascinating juxtapositions, Berlin’s stories embody rather than merely describe the challenges faced by her marginalized narrators and protagonists. At their most inventive, these stories switch direction as frequently as the buses in the title story, which comprises a house cleaner’s wry journal that she writes on public transportation. …In the meantime, those not lucky enough to have yet encountered the writing of Lucia Berlin are in for some high-grade pleasure when they make first contact. As Lydia Davis writes in her thoughtful introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, ‘This is exhilarating writing.’”

Layout 1The Story of the Lost Child. Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
I’ve embarked on reading this series, having completed the first book, My Brilliant Friend. NPR critic Maureen Corrigan writes: “The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s remarkable ‘Neapolitan Novels,’ is a stunner … but you will only realize how stunning it is if you do yourself a favor and read the three earlier novels in the series first.”

To give you an idea of how the series starts, from Alex Clark in The Guardian: “In the prologue to My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series – before we’re plunged into the pair’s childhood, with its vivid vignettes and its atmosphere of fairytale menace – present-day Elena tells us that Lila, now in her 60s, has disappeared without a trace. Elena is not alarmed, because she believes that Lila is simply making good on a long-held promise to absent herself . …But the news prompts Elena to write their story…”

Below are five novels and two short story collections that four out of the five publications agreed upon. I thought the list was interesting, and so wanted to include it.

Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories by Anthony Marra
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams

 

 

The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene SueParisians are reading Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir, A Moveable Feastin droves.  According to The Atlantic: “The Paris memoir, published posthumously in 1964, holds the top spot on Amazon’s French site, has sold out of stock at a number of bookstores and, as Le Figaro reports, has become a fixture among the flowers in memorials across the city.”

The memoir recounts Hemingway’s Parisian life between 1921 and 1926 when he was a poor, unknown writer married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. They lived above a sawmill on Rue Notre Dame des Champs. Hemingway wrote in the city’s cafés and shared encounters with fellow budding scribes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. The 1920’s are the famous years when young American expatriate artists experienced the City of Light with passion, friendship and hope. Hemingway writes about his time there with affection and vivid evocations of Paris’s streets, shops, people and monuments, capturing a resonant joie de vivre that’s come to symbolize the city. The New York Times wrote: “No one has ever written about Paris in the nineteen twenties as well as Hemingway.”

No wonder the Parisians are reading A Moveable Feast right now.

Penguin Classics is publishing this month a new translation of another classic featuring life in Paris. The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg, is not a memoir, rather a fictional story that was serialized in 150 episodes in the daily newspaper Journal des Débats in 1842. “It was certainly the runaway best seller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest best seller of all time,” writes Peter Books in an article in The New York Review of Books, which appears in different form as the foreword to the book. The Mysteries of Paris is about rich and poor Parisians engaging in life together and the signature character Rodolphe, described by Penguin Classics as “a magnetic hero of noble heart and shadowy origins”.  The book is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables that was published two decades later in 1862.

Peter Brooks goes on to write about The Mysteries of Paris:

“It’s hard to estimate its audience, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafés throughout France, in workshops and offices. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was a truly national experience, magnetizing in the way celebrity trials have been in our time, maintained addictively from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.”

Well, dang! That certainly incites a reader to want to hurriedly buy the book and settle in for the desired biblio-oblivion of an imagined world. But hang on – The Mysteries of Paris is more than 1,000 pages, an investment of time that in the 21st century isn’t so readily accessible. I imagine, though, if one approached the book as did its 19th century audience, in daily installments, it might yield its original grip, anticipation and excitement.

Peter Brooks writes in the NYRB article:

“[Author Eugène] Sue creates a fabulous cast of characters, from the villainous to the virtuous, and he manages their entries and exits expertly, interweaving five or six different plotlines in order to maintain suspense and keep the reading experience one of high tension. His characters act out their psychic lives in the heightened words and gestures of melodrama.”

I’m not attempting to draw comparisons between Hemingway’s memoir and Sue’s melodrama. Their juxtaposition here is only for their current, respective states of new popularity and new translation. I suppose there is not one answer for why Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast became the choice of comfort for Parisians after the November 13 terrorist attacks; however, one could surmise that it, above all other books about Paris, evokes the true heart of the city that will endure, no matter what happens. And for us, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps The Mysteries of Paris in its new translation will be the classic to read in honor of the City of Light.

 

Bookfair loot

November 19, 2015

The annual Dayton, Ohio, book fair took place last weekend. It’s a bookaholic’s mecca — a huge room filled with used books in various categories going for $1 to $3. I typically look for first editions to fill holes in my collections, as well as books I’ve read on loan from a library and want to own, let alone books to read.

Dayton Book Fair 2015

 

Some years I find an unusual book, and by that I mean it strikes me as unusual for its subject matter or, say, the book design. That happened several years ago, when I purchased a hardbound copy of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov). The book was originally published in the Soviet Union in 1966 but heavily censored to the point of destroying the sense of the book. Anatoli escaped the Soviet Union in 1969 and brought with him films taken of Dayton Book Fair Purchases_2015the original, uncensored manuscript. This is that book, which records the author’s experience under the Nazis in the Ukraine. Making my copy even more unique, I recently had it signed by William Vollman, novelist and National Book Award winner, who listed the book among what he thinks are the best works of war fiction and non-fiction in his New York Times “By the Book” interview.

At this year’s fair, I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible in a first edition and (bonus!) signed on the title page. I also picked up Maggie Shipstead’s novel Seating Arrangements, published in 2012. A library copy sat on my reading table for a few weeks, and then I returned it unread. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, a copy without its dust jacket, landed in the shopping cart because I’ve always wanted to read this novel about a Vietnam war correspondent who gets into the heroin trade. Dog Soldiers shared the 1975 National Book Award with The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams and was named among Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Robert Stone died this year. Regarding Thomas Williams, the Los Angeles Times describes him “as unknown now as if he’d never written anything” in a review of  The Hair of Harold Roux reissued in paperback.

Also in the cart, Alan Furst’s Midnight in EuropeI’m a big fan of Alan Furst’s World War II Joinerespionage novels that tell not only a great story but do so with historical detail. I found an advanced reading copy for Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller to accompany the hardbound copy I own, and a first edition of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. I haven’t read Middlesex and, in all honesty, I bought the book (with a pristine dust jacket) in case I get the opportunity to meet Mr. Eugenides and get his signature.

Finally, this year’s unusual book is Joiner by James Whitehead, the version reprinted by University of Arkansas Press in 1991. This is Whitehead’s only novel, originally published in 1971, about “a young athlete’s spiritual breakdown, his exploits as NFL tackle, father, lover, killer, intellectual, and teacher, and his ultimate redemption” (from the back of the book). Something about it just called to me, and so into the shopping cart it went for $1.50.

Pushkin Vertigo is a new crime imprint, launched this fall by publishing house Pushkin Press. Its focus is tour-de-force international crime novels written between the 1920s and 1970s. The imprint’s name is a nod to Hitchcock’s film Vertigostarring Kim Novak, that was created from the novel written in 1954 by French authorial partners Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.

I discovered this new imprint during a visit to The Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street in New York’s Tribeca, a large room filled with new releases, paperbacks, signed first editions, and much more by way of crime/mystery/suspense/detective reading. The colorful paperbacks caught my eye with their distinctive design and then got my attention by the recommendation of the store manager, Ian Kern. As much as I review new books, I’m always searching through those from the past where good stories — riveting stories — can be found.

 

I Was Jack Mortimer, one of the first books to be published by Pushkin Vertigo, initially arrived on the reading scene in 1933, published in German. It was twice adapted for the movies, the story of a cab driver who delivers a strikingly sophisticated woman to her destination and then begins stalking her. But here is not the heart of the story. Ferdinand Sponer soon picks up another fare, the American Jack Mortimer, who gets shot in the back seat of his cab. A series of screwed-up efforts by Sponer to get help paints a false picture of himself as the murderer.

The story, set in 1930s Vienna, Austria, starts interestingly but slowly, and then soon ramps up into high intrigue due to the many unpredictable complications and twists in plot that create this puzzling murder mystery. The book is only 186 pages, short enough to gobble up in a weekend, as is Vertigo (189 pages). “Did You Know?” is a feature in the Pushkin Vertigo end pages, providing historical information regarding the authors, the books and/or the stories — such as the social and intellectual upheaval of 20th-century Austria for I Was Jack Mortimer and the successful writing partnership of Boileau and Narcejac that spanned four decades for Vertigo.

Of the first six books now being sold, while I can recommend I Was Jack Mortimer and Vertigo, the store manager at The Mysterious Bookshop said his customers have praised The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Below are the other three books currently available. Check out Pushkin Vertigo’s website for more information.

I’m one who reads the acknowledgements at the back of books. Those mile-long, effusive thanks for all the people who’ve helped the author become an author and/or write the book. I like how this conventional page that typically presents a formidable list of names can shed light on the network of literary others associated with the author, as well as on how the book came together.

Jonathan Evison’s acknowledgements in his new book, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, go beyond the typical, deserving a shout-out. It is one of the best I’ve ever read.

“The author would like to gratefully acknowledge to [sic] following people: first, the courageous women in my life, the women who have nurtured me, educated me, disciplined me, sacrificed for me, suffered for me, and never forsaken me; my mom, my grandma, my sisters, my wife, and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hanford, to name a few. The women who have often settled for less, the women who’ve never quite gotten their fair share, who have soldiered on in the face of inequity, frustration, and despair, who have forgiven beyond reasonable measure, absorbed beyond reasonable expectation, and given, given, given with no promise of recompense. I wanted to thank them with this portrait of one woman, inspired by all of them, from the moment of her conception, to her last breath.”

This Is Your Life Harriet Chance by Jonathan EvisonThat one woman is 78-year-old Harriet Chance, whose fictional life Evison reveals with quirky brilliance, using a jocular Master of Ceremonies as a guide through Harriet’s reflections of her past life, “pinballing across the decades” between 1936 and 2015. Without sentiment, he advises, explains and encourages, creating a humorous, uplifting narrative despite the darkness that shadows Harriet’s life — the absence and bullying of Harriet’s husband, Bernard, throughout their long marriage; her parents’ indifference when she was a child; her troubled daughter Caroline, who embraced drugs, alcohol and theft; her best friend’s duplicity; and the law degree that got put aside for marriage and kids.

In the present, the widowed, 78-year-old Harriet receives a call about an Alaskan cruise that Bernard won in a silent auction before his death.  Her children discourage her, but off Harriet goes to board the ship, even though her best friend Mildred backs out of the trip at the last minute. The first night on the boat, Harriet learns a startling truth about her past and, in response, gets drunk and messy in the boat’s bar, making a fool of herself with a plateful of crab legs and too many glasses of white wine. Out of the blue, the next day, her estranged daughter Caroline joins her on the boat, for infuriating reasons.

While Harriet marches through the gift shops of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan; makes amends with her daughter; befriends another cruiser, the morbidly obese Kurt Pickens; and attempts to make the best of the trip, she also mentally tries to put her life together in a way that makes sense. Why did she fail to hold the attention of her elusive husband? Why did Caroline become a misfit? How is it her devotion and servitude didn’t help her relationships with Bernard and Caroline? What happened to the frank, uncompromising, funny, tough woman she saw in her other self that wanted to become a lawyer?

“Ding-dong-ding, thwack-thwack-thwack, how on earth did we arrive way back here, Harriet? It’s 1946, and Vaughn Monroe is on the radio. If you listen closely, you can still hear them celebrating victory in Times Square,” says the MC, introducing us to a chapter when Harriet is nine-years-old. This is no ordinary life study, thanks not only to the MC but also the appearances of dead Bernard, popping up in the earthly realm to talk to Harriet, although he’s not sure what he’s trying to accomplish — and he’s getting himself in trouble with Heaven’s Chief Transitional Officer, Carmichael.

Bravo to Evison for pulling off the quirkiness without schmaltz and also departing from the heavy dysfunctional family story with a light touch, an insightful nod to life’s disappointments and a big hand for living one day, one week, one year at a time to the best of one’s abilities, and that includes with courage and forgiveness.

Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. GlaserBy page 50, I was tempted to put this book aside. The author writes without establishing an emotional connection to her protagonists, Paulina and Fran, and I thought I was in for a lackluster read. And yet, when I realized these shallow art school students are caricatured and not meant to be cared about, I mentally stepped back to read the book through an unaffected lens.

I observed the behavior on the page as one would watch an incomprehensible but entertaining play in which friendship is discarded as casually as a used match (and then picked up and put in the trash and then retrieved from the trash). Also, sex is more a commodity of power and self-importance among the art students than an act of love. Paulina and Fran are self-absorbed, arrogant, dishonest, frivolous, jealous and petty. While attending their New England art school, they live without serious consideration for the future, all the while imagining they will live glorious, famous lives. Nowhere in the story are academics or serious artistic values embraced. And if it’s not already obvious, self-image is of prime importance, as is perfect, dreamy curly hair.

This may seem distasteful, but once I let go of my emotional expectations, what was distasteful turned funny, and Rachel B. Glaser’s inventiveness sparkled. The story popped with energy and smart one-liners. Glaser reveals the girls’ silly, valueless existence with sharp wit, laughable scenes and a breezy narrative that sweeps through the pages with the dazzle of a happy Prima Donna.

The plot is thin but made robust with a fill-up of aforementioned wit. Paulina and Fran’s friendship begins during a 10-day college trip to Norway and ends when they’re back in the States. This break-up happens when Paulina dumps her boyfriend Julian and Fran hops into bed and a romantic relationship with him. The girls become competitive yet are haunted by an ever-present yearning for one another. Graduation arrives and strips away their illusions of self-glory: Fran paints houses in Upstate New York before moving to a dull cubicle job in Ohio; Paulina becomes homeless and then makes it big selling an invented curly hair product in Manhattan.

Paulina & Fran gives an exaggerated, lampooning glimpse into the life of art students, dreaming big as if fame arrives magically without the necessary hard work and integrity. Indeed, the Age of Artistic Youth comes across as an everlasting high. In one scene, where Paulina and Fran are dancing at a college party, author Rachel B. Glaser writes:

“The forgotten eighties song came on again, the synthesizer stirring up feelings, and everyone screamed the sound of youth loving youth. Everyone was in the same big mood.”

The story ends with distant orbiting of the girls around Julian and each other that’s altogether perfect albeit without hope. We know it’s doubtful they’ll land in a future that’s secure and successful unless they change, becoming more reality-savvy. The terrific lampooning aside, I wistfully wanted the ending to hint at their evolving maturity, if only for the girls to begin to realize, however slightly, that the best life is the one that’s not all about oneself.

It’s the economy, stupid

October 20, 2015

Refund by Karen E. BenderI put aside Garth Risk Hallberg’s stunning behemoth City On Fire to read Karen E. Bender’s story collection, Refund. City On Fire is engrossing, no doubt there, definitely a good novel to sink into, but I just wanted to step aside for a moment – reading Hallberg’s 900+ pages is a huge investment in reading time, and these 13 collected stories provided the perfect, temporary wayside.

They are tied together by a theme of money — how it rules and changes American lives and the emotional damage and exhaustion that creates. The characters are financially trapped by their jobs, some needing second and third jobs, some getting fired and struggling to make ends meet, some unable to get off the sofa to do anything but go to the job. They are blind to the happiness and security present in togetherness with others, which is the way Bender infuses the stories with hope – because the solution is right there – available — for most of the characters.

These characters include a life-long swindler on an Alaskan cruise, the executive producer of a hit TV game show called “Anything For Money,” a loan officer, an appliance doctor, a political candidate, artists and more. They are funny, familiar, heartbreaking and relatable. In the title story, probably my favorite, a woman astronomically increases the amount a couple owes her as a refund for subletting their apartment in New York when the 9-11 terrorist attack happens. It’s an unforgettable story about money’s inability to replace that aforementioned togetherness.

The author uses a dramatic event to ignite her plots, such as a school shooting that opens “The Sea Turtle Hospital.” The story is about the assistant kindergarten teacher, alone after moving to North Carolina with her boyfriend and then breaking up with him – and about her student, Keisha. No one comes for either of them after the shooting, so the teacher takes Keisha to the sea turtle hospital by the ocean. There they meet the blind turtle Hugh, bumping into the walls of his tank with no way out. The teacher and Keisha imagine what it would be like if Hugh regained his sight, and when they do that, it’s impossible not to think of a metaphor for everyone who is burdened by money’s influence regaining sight of life’s purpose and meaning:

“Maybe, I had said, we would all gather at the shore and watch him swim out, and he would take in the sea with his perfect new vision, he would remember how to swim, and he would feel the buoyancy of the waves under his fins as he floated into the deep blue water.”

One day, I was stopped at a forever red stoplight. I picked Refund up off the passenger seat and began reading. I completely let go of my surroundings, violating my rule for stoplight reading that requires me to peripherally be aware of the red brake lights of the car in front of me in order to know when to put the book down. I shouldn’t read at stoplights, I suppose, and this book is a case in point: It grabbed and dragged me into the story so fast I fell out of my present reality, woken by the driver behind me firmly pressing the horn. Huh? What?

Refund by Karen E. Bender is in the final running for the National Book Award in fiction. Winners in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and young people’s literature will be announced November 18.

The title of this post is a tip of the hat to James Carville and the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign.

 

 

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg“Did You Ever Have a Family” appeared on the Man Booker longlist of prize candidates for 2015. It did not make it to the shortlist. (The winner from the shortlist will be announced October 13.) This beguiling novel is now among the longlist of nominees for the National Book Award in fiction. (The shortlist will be announced October 14.) I provide this information simply to showcase the attention the book is getting from this season’s major literature awards.

I recently recorded the following review of “Did You Ever Have a Family” for broadcast on WOSU 89.7 fm.

Mid-way through Bill Clegg’s debut novel, his main character June Reid, a divorced mother in her 50’s, poses the question that is the book’s title. She asks it out of fatigued exasperation, weeping on a log in the woods outside her house in Wells, Connecticut, speaking to the sister of her daughter’s fiancé. Did you ever have a family? It’s an odd question because — of course Pru has a family. Her brother Will is marrying June’s daughter Lolly — and Pru’s parents are flying in the next day for the wedding.

What Clegg frames for emphasis here is June’s despair over the conflict between herself and Lolly. They haven’t gotten along since the divorce, and now June doesn’t want her ex-husband sleeping at the house the night before the wedding, but Lolly insists.

Ultimately, this deeply felt story is about bearing up through tragedy, but by taking this question for the book’s title, Clegg wants to draw us to that moment in the woods as if to say, no matter the state of a family, if you lose it, you lose everything, and June loses everything. The night before the wedding, her house explodes from a gas leak. The wedding couple, June’s ex-husband and her boyfriend Luke die in the blast. Why June is alive is one of the questions pushing forward the narrative, along with the larger question of why the gas leak occurred.

Clegg deftly uses a handful of character viewpoints in dedicated chapters to tell the story. There’s the wedding florist and caterer, the father of the groom and owners of a motel on the Pacific Ocean where Will and Lolly once stayed. June leaves Connecticut and settles at the motel. She abandons Lydia, the mother of Luke whom gossips speculate caused the catastrophe. Lydia, for comfort, clings to the attention of a persistent, flirtatious phone solicitor.

Each character’s offering is compulsively readable as Clegg progressively connects the players not just through heartbreak but also secrets and regrets from the past. The story isn’t as much melancholy as poignant, illustrating the classic truth that disasters make us see what we can lose. It’s also redemptive, as Clegg enlightens June and Lydia in truth and hope. “All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company,” one character says in the end, providing simple wisdom for daily purpose.

The lesson of the book critic

September 24, 2015

There’s not been much activity here on TLC this month. That’s because all I want to do is read, and when I finish a book, all I want to do is pick up the next one. But all I want to read are the books on my reading table. The ones I’ve been saying I’ll get to eventually — the ones I keep re-arranging into different pile configurations: Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winner Early Autumn, Michael Crummey’s second novel The Wreckage, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery Gaudy Night, Declan Kiberd’s nonfiction book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Kathleen Jones’ biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to name a few.

I don’t seem to be interested in the new books being published this fall, aside from Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I keep intending to read, but then I pick up another book. The galley sits on my dining room table like a spaniel patiently waiting for a biscuit. I’ve actually dusted it. Meanwhile, I reread Lord of the Flies. I finished the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, finally completing the Booker-nominated Mother’s Milk and At Last. I read John O’Hara’s National Book Award winner 10 North Frederick and Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, written about in the previous post. I read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mystery, published in 1989, The Hanging Valley, the fourth in his detective series I began long ago.

The other night I combed through the forecasts of new books coming out in October and November, and then I proceeded to start reading Fragments by Jack Fuller. Originally published in 1984 and reissued by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, Fragments is counted among the best Vietnam novels – Michiko Kakutani, in her review for The New York Times, February 1984, described it as an “elegantly executed” story about “the uses of memory – to transcend, not simply to recapture, the past.”

I bought Fragments three years ago and then delayed the gratification of reading it. I think that’s what’s gotten to me – the employment of delayed gratification, mixed with hope and promise, isn’t holding the pile steady anymore. I’ve come to think this may be due to a deepening feeling that constantly advancing forward to read the next new book is becoming a chase when, right under my nose, terrific, published-in-the-past books are in my house waiting to be read. Put another way, delayed gratification is beginning to feel more like neglect.

I’ll still be reading new books (I have to, I want to!), but as for the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, it looks like their day has arrived. At least, for now.

Here are three I’m moving toward, after I finish Fragments.

I don’t know how I found The Last of the Just. It was originally published by Editions du Seuil, Paris (Le Dernier des Justes), in 1959. It won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary prize in France awarded by the Académie Française. The English translation followed in 1960 by Atheneum House. The novel, a literary sensation during its time, must’ve been referenced by someone, or mentioned in something I read, which then took me down the discovery trail. The Herald Tribune is quoted on the back of the book, saying: “A drama that seizes you and will not let you go.” From Overlook Press, which issued the novel in paperback in 2000, here’s a story summary:

“On March 11, 1185, in the old Anglican city of York, the Jews of the city were brutally massacred by their townsmen. As legend has it, God blessed the only survivor of this medieval pogrom, Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, as one of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men of Jewish tradition, a blessing which extended to one Levy of each succeeding generation. This terrifying and remarkable legacy is traced over eight centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition, to expulsions from England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Russia, and to the small Polish village of Zemyock, where the Levys settle for two centuries in relative peace. It is in the twentieth century that Ernie Levy emerges, The Last of the Just, in 1920s Germany, as Hitler’s sinister star is on the rise and the agonies of Auschwitz loom on the horizon.”

The Lesson of the Master by Henry JamesHenry James’ The Lesson of the Master is part of the Melville House series The Art of the Novella. Others in this series include, to name just two out of many, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. From the dust jacket description about The Lesson of the Master:

“With extraordinary psychological insight and devastating wit, the novella captures the ambiguities of a life devoted to art, and the choices artists must make. They were choices the expatriate James knew well by the time he published the novella in the Universal Review in 1888, and the work reveals him at the height of his powers.”

Odd that I would want to read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain first, the third in his American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Why not start at the beginning? I own almost all of Roth’s novels, including these two. But like other books I pick up or select along my reading and book-buying paths, this one sparkled and got singled out. So I’m trusting there’s a strong reason I dropped The Human Stain onto my delayed gratification pile. On the back of my Vintage International paperback, there’s this summary:

“Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk’s secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled.”

In 2012, Philip Roth wrote an Open Letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker about incorrect information on the site concerning his inspiration for The Human Stain. He mentions Wikipedia’s response to his attempt to fix the misstatement — they said they required secondary attribution (as if the author wouldn’t know the inspiration of his own novel). Wikipedia currently references Roth’s letter and incorporates the correction.

The last night of summer

August 31, 2015

The Last Night of Summer by Erskine CaldwellI can’t let this day (or night) pass without a mention of Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, an engaging and shocking, brief novel set in a river city called Grandport, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, during the mid-20th century. The book is unfortunately out of print, but it’s available from used bookstores, where I found my copy. I wasn’t looking for it; however, like many used books I bring into my house, I found it irresistible and put it with all the other books in the “hope to read” pile. Well, I’ve been going through that pile.

Erskine Caldwell (1903 -1987) wrote prolifically — non-fiction, novels and short stories — to a vast, international readership. He’s frequently described as one of the most widely read literary figures of the twentieth century. Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre are his most acclaimed and best-known novels, both published in the 1930’s, classic literature about the hopelessly rural poor in the American South. These two books, and a few others of the many Caldwell wrote, get mentions in articles about him, but I haven’t found any mention of The Last Night of Summer, published in 1963. Caldwell’s later books received less critical attention.

Even though it’s not among his best, or most spoken about, The Last Night of Summer is riveting. First, though, you have to get past the deceptively slow beginning, where an old-fashioned sense of sexual propriety versus risk suggests the story may be an outdated bog of a read. A young Roma Henderson propositions her boss and business owner, the middle-aged Brooks Ingraham, begging him to come to her apartment that night. It’s a big deal that she addresses him — for the first time — as Brooks, instead of Mr. Ingraham, to give an example of the era. But hang on — as Brooks decides to take Roma up on her offer, cheating on his cold, demanding, wealthy wife, the story quickly gives way to unexpected consequences. Indeed, in less than 200 pages, Caldwell produces a startling plot that involves adultery, murder, a car wreck, assault and robbery, rape and prostitution. The prose lacks elegance — Caldwell was known for his direct style — but that makes the story more unsettling. There’s no fluff to soften the grit of what’s happening. The prose also includes unusual, colorful parenthetical inner thoughts of characters and also author commentary, such as the following:

 (“You can’t blame a country boy like Brooks too much for stepping up out of his class and marrying a rich woman like Maureen. Maybe he didn’t find out till it was too late that she wasn’t going to let his mother and father come to the wedding or invite them to her house ever since, and after that it was too late for him to put his foot down and do something about it. …What Maureen wanted from the start was a tall handsome man like Brooks to take her to the country club dances and to show him off at parties, and she had the money to get what she wanted.”)

Thunderstorms roll in and pound the city. This wild, stormy weather gives the book its title, for the storms are known to occur the last night of summer, bringing an end to all the hot days and nights in the flat delta country surrounding Grandport. But something else also happens: People on this night are driven to do things they’ve had on their minds all summer long, before it’s too late. And so they do, in this surprising page-turner with its old-fashioned attitudes and direct, sensational action.

 

 

 

My brother, my nemesis

August 26, 2015

Those We Left Behind by Stuart NevilleThe first two pages of Stuart Neville’s new Irish crime novel paint a chilling scene: Two brothers, 12 and 14 years old, are covered in blood and wrapped in each others arms as they listen to approaching police sirens. They know the police will soon witness a brutal murder scene. The brief prologue sets up not only the novel’s main crime, but also the brothers’ dangerous dependence on one another. Their powerful, emotional unity fuels the tension and smartly keeps us off guard.

Seven years later, Ciaran Devine, the younger brother, makes headlines in Northern Ireland’s newspapers as the “schoolboy killer” being released from jail. He served time for the murder of his foster father in that disturbing opening scene, having confessed to the crime. Thomas, the older brother, served less  jail time as an accessory and has waited two years for Ciaran’s release. Ciaran’s probation officer, Paula Cunningham, is advised to allow Ciaran to see Thomas as soon as possible because “Thomas always seems to put Ciaran back on track.”

The brothers’ renewed togetherness feels edgy and suspicious, especially for Cunningham as she works to integrate Ciaran back into society. There’s an overarching question about which brother actually committed the crime, heightening her concerns. DCI Serena Flanagan, the only officer who was able to communicate with the frightened 12-year-old Ciaran, believes he confessed to protect his older brother. Daniel Rolston, the son of the murdered man, also doubts the law punished the right boy.

Rolston further unsettles an already disturbing situation by stalking the newly freed Ciaran and accosting Cunningham, all the while causing disturbances at his workplace. He seems mentally off kilter and acts beyond the law, driven by his obsession for truth. Meanwhile, Flanagan behaves inappropriately with Ciaran to get him to tell the truth about his confession, and Thomas is getting angry at the way Rolston, Cunningham and Flanagan are meddling with his brother’s past.

Even when the big question about the confession gets answered, author Stuart Neville doesn’t give us relief. He holds us in fearful limbo over the brothers’ intentions, which increasingly become deadly. I kept wondering how far the depraved Thomas would go to keep Ciaran and himself together and isolated from the world that doesn’t understand them. Cunningham and Flanagan become targets on his protective radar screen, creating nerve-wracking moments, especially given Neville’s sympathetic characterization of Flanagan.

Scenes in Those We Left Behind work together with flawless, syncopated dark magic and genuinely evoked characters; however, there are a few, insignificant hiccups: In one situation, a search team overlooks what would appear to be an obvious clue; in another, police protection at the house of Cunningham isn’t offered and that feels like an oversight; in another, no usage of cell phones feels odd. These are small pebbles, though, and not boulders impeding the emotionally charged fluency of action.

I’m always apprehensive nearing the end of crime novels and mysteries that have successfully seduced me. I get concerned the edge-of-the-seat questions will be wrapped up too simply, with the author throwing down a sigh of relief and a detective’s stamp of completion. That’s not the case with Those We Left Behind, which stays in the upper levels of intensity that drive the best of its genre. The story retains its creepiness, rooted in the sibling dependence, to the very end, with a movie-worthy final scene taking place beside the Irish Sea.

Those We Left Behind is Stuart Neville’s sixth crime/mystery novel. It’s being described as the first in a series that will follow DCI Serena Flanagan.

 

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