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.”
Henry 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.
August 31, 2015
I 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.
August 26, 2015
The 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.
August 13, 2015
Letter books can be big and tedious, running north of 400 pages and lacking the richness of plot. Put another way, rarely do you read “compelling” and “intriguing” in reviews of such books; however, the intimate voice of letter writing can drive seductive page-turning, at least for me. After that, it’s the time period and then, typically, a celebrity life that can create drama from daily details. For Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, there is much more due to a unique, wondrous connection between them — the southern writer and the crime novelist, the one a Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Optimist’s Daughter) and the other a recipient of the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America (the MWA’s highest honor recognizing lifetime achievement). This connection is from literature, but it builds into deep affection and love, making the reading far from “big and tedious.” Their letters are filled with references about books and the writing life, and underlying their words is an intimacy from companionable souls. Chapter titles reveal some of what I’m saying:
- “If one of your letters could be rotten there’d be nothing sound left in heaven or on earth.”
- “I dreamed I was sending you the dream I was dreaming.”
- “Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.”
- “What we need is one another.”
Now, here is the point I want to get to: the sharing of a short story that came to my attention within the letters.
In the summer of 1973, Macdonald’s editor asked him to put together a mystery and suspense anthology, “a fairly thick one comprising novels, novellas, and short stories.” Macdonald and Welty swapped ideas of possible inclusions, and I went in search of one of them — “The Walker” by Patrick O’Brian, a short story — because of what they said about it. Welty sent a copy of it to Macdonald who responded, “It’s a terribly powerful story — one of those stories that stays with you forever, I suspect, like a terribly bad dream — and I hope to use it.” Welty then remarked that the story had stayed with her for years and, in another letter, wrote: “What you say about ‘The Walker’ & the reader’s being trapped with complicity expresses or explains the awful hold it has, which I could not have put my finger on, or never had.”
I had to read this story to experience and discover what they were saying about it, but The Walker and Other Stories by Patrick O’Brian is out of print. Nevertheless, I found the story at the library in another collection written by Patrick O’Brian, The Rendezvous and Other Stories. Only 10 pages, “The Walker” is everything Welty and Macdonald said about it — that awful hold it has. It is indeed terribly powerful, chilling and unforgettable, and a few days later I read it again.
July 29, 2015
Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz
James Bond fans can look forward to a new 007 thriller with Trigger Mortis being released September 9 both in the UK and USA. While Ian Fleming’s estate has worked with other authors in the past to publish new books using the deceased novelist’s spy (Jeffrey Deaver, Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd), this is the first time an author uses one of Fleming’s Bond girls: Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, Ian Fleming’s Bond novels published in 1959, is back.
The story takes place in 1957, two years after the conclusion of Goldfinger. From the publisher’s website, here’s some of what it’s about:
“The world’s most famous spy, James Bond, has just returned victorious from his showdown with Auric Goldfinger in Fort Knox. By his side is the glamorous and streetwise Pussy Galore, who played no small part in his success. As they settle down in London, the odds of Galore taming the debonair bachelor seem slim—but she herself is a creature not so easily caught.
Meanwhile, the struggle for superiority between the Soviet Union and the West is escalating. In an attempt to demonstrate Soviet strength, SMERSH plans to sabotage an international Grand Prix in the hot zone of West Germany. At the Nürburgring Racing Circuit, Bond must play a high-speed game of cat and mouse to stop them, but when he observes a secretive meeting between SMERSH’s driver and a notorious Korean millionaire, it becomes clear that this is just the infamous organization’s opening move.”
Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris
Mary McGrory (1918 – 2004) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her columns about Watergate in The Washington Star. She covered 12 Presidential campaigns and major American events, from the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2003. From the publisher’s website, here’s some insight into McGrory:
“Behind the scenes she flirted, drank, cajoled, and jousted with the most important figures in American life, breaking all the rules in the journalism textbook. Her writing was admired and feared by such notables as Lyndon Johnson (who also tried to seduce her) and her friend Bobby Kennedy who observed, ‘Mary is so gentle—until she gets behind a typewriter.’ Her soirees, filled with Supreme Court justices, senators, interns, and copy boys alike, were legendary.”
Author John Norris wrote an article in the May/June 2014 Politico Magazine about McGrory, and it mentions the Johnson seduction. Here’s an excerpt from the article. McGrory has just learned that President Lyndon B. Johnson is on his way to her apartment:
“A Bostonian ever proud of her Irish roots, McGrory had adored President John F. Kennedy, and she had been a constant behind-the-scenes presence during the Camelot years. So she was no stranger to power, but the impromptu nature of Johnson’s visit was unnerving.
McGrory invited him in and offered the president a drink. They engaged in some friendly small talk until Johnson, tumbler of scotch in his large hand, finally put his cards on the table. “Mary, I am crazy about you,” he confessed. He wanted to sleep with her.
Then, in what has to be one of the most awkward and unromantic propositions in presidential history, Johnson tried to make the case that since McGrory had always admired Kennedy, she should now transfer her affections to him.”
Those who’ve read Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power will understand what’s behind Johnson’s thinking. (And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.)
Publisher’s Weekly says, “The book is a rich portrait, and will likely encourage readers to seek more of McGrory’s groundbreaking writing.” Kirkus Reviews says, “Norris is plainly in love with his fascinating subject, which is not only McGrory, but newspaper journalism in general.”
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen, the author Time Magazine put on their August 23, 2010, cover under the title Great American Novelist, is publishing this new novel in September. Kirkus Reviews describes it as: “A twisty but controlled epic that merges large and small concerns: loose nukes and absent parents, government surveillance and bad sex, gory murder and fine art.” Publisher’s Weekly writes: “Though the novel lacks resonance, its pieces fit together with stunning craftsmanship.”
Purity is a California girl and recent college graduate, who interns for an organization in Bolivia run by the charismatic leader Andreas Wolf. Wolf is trafficking in the world’s secrets, and he’s on the lam (sounding very similar to Julian Assange). Description from the publisher’s website includes the following:
“Young Pip Tyler doesn’t know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she’s saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she’s squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother–her only family–is hazardous. But she doesn’t have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she’ll ever have a normal life.
Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world–including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins.”
July 14, 2015
Harper Lee’s second novel became available to readers today. Go Set a Watchman is the book Ms. Lee wrote prior to her classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Some could say it was the first draft. In the late 1950’s, Ms. Lee’s editor at J. B. Lippincott & Co. saw within that first manuscript a stronger story in the flashbacks of the protagonist Jean Louise Finch (a.k.a. Scout). She sent Ms. Lee back to her typewriter to write that other book, and To Kill a Mockingbird was born. Go Set a Watchman was never published until now.
“Ms. Lee said she had thought the draft of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ had been lost or destroyed. Then last fall, Tonja Carter, her friend and lawyer, discovered the manuscript in a secure place where Ms. Lee keeps her archives, attached to an original typed manuscript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ According to Ms. Lee’s publisher, Ms. Carter didn’t understand what she had stumbled on at first, until she realized that the passages weren’t from Ms. Lee’s first and only novel.”
A July 3rd article in The New York Times casts doubt on whether or not this is the first discovery of the manuscript. From that article, with the title “Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought,” there’s this:
“But another narrative has emerged that suggests the discovery may have happened years earlier, in October 2011, when Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s auction house, flew to Alabama to meet with Ms. Carter and Samuel Pinkus, then Ms. Lee’s literary agent, to appraise a ‘Mockingbird’ manuscript for insurance and other purposes.
“The discrepancy between the two accounts raises questions about whether the book was lost and accidentally recovered, and about why Ms. Lee would not have sought to publish it earlier.”
Today’s New York Times reports Ms. Carter’s revised version of her discovery story in “A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origins and Hints of a Third Book:”
“The new statements from Ms. Carter, who has been a central figure in bringing the novel to publication, feature some discrepancies with her earlier accounts of the book’s discovery, which could revive skepticism about ‘Watchman’s’ provenance even as bookstores and readers across the country are celebrating its release.”
I read To Kill a Mockingbird a long time ago. I didn’t think re-reading it would be best in my approach to Go Set a Watchman, especially considering this new novel came first; however, I wanted to get my thoughts into the arena of Harper Lee’s life and work. And so, below, to share, are the online places I visited to reacquaint myself with the story of Scout and Atticus Finch. Like many, I will be reading the new novel over the next few days.
Garrison Keillor’s review of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles R. Shields gives a peek at Ms. Lee’s struggle to create her famous novel. As you would expect from Keillor, it’s an enjoyable review that includes the following:
“If you were going to draw a movie from this book, you’d start on York Avenue in Manhattan on a cold winter night in the late 1950’s. Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window and then a young woman, weeping, picking them up out of the snow. She is an airline ticket clerk and she has been working at her typewriter late at night ever since she came to the city over her parents’ objections in 1949. She is on her own. Her childhood pal, Truman, an effeminate boy befriended by the boyish girl, is nearby but out of range, flying high, a heralded young novelist (‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’) with a Broadway musical in the works. In his wake, she strikes people as dumpy and distant. She perseveres. In November 1956, she walks into an agent’s office at 18 East 41st Street with five short stories in hand, and is encouraged. On Christmas Day, at her friends Michael and Joy Brown’s town house on East 50th, they present her with a gift, a note — ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’ She is bowled over by their generosity. A year later, she has the beginnings of a novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ which becomes ‘Atticus,’ which, under the tutelage of a patient editor at Lippincott named Tay Hohoff (‘dressed in a business suit with her steel gray hair pulled tightly behind her, . . . short and rail-thin with an aristocratic profile and a voice raspy from cigarettes’), after the cold winter night breakdown, she finishes in the summer of 1959.”
“Engrossing first novel of rare excellence”
This sentence is from a 1960 review of To Kill a Mockingbird, which appeared July 17 in the Chicago Tribune. The review also includes this:
“The first-person narrator is a pistol of a little girl about to enter first grade just after the narrative starts; her nickname is Scout. She has a brother, Jem, four years her senior. Her father is a widowed lawyer named Atticus. Then there is a little boy her own age — Dill — who comes each summer to visit in Maycomb, Ala., during the mid 1930s.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird will never stop being a good book, and it will never stop inspiring good people.”
This review by a young reader in The Guardian is from a series featuring book reviews by young readers ages 7 to 18. It includes this:
“To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on that gut instinct of right and wrong, and distinguishes it from just following the law. Even the titular quote: ‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’ is in itself an allegory for this message.”
Robert Duvall’s movie debut
And finally, a review summary of the 1962 movie of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch is widely known for the famous role, but who knew or remembered this is Robert Duvall’s movie debut as Boo Radley?
“While Robinson’s trial gives the film its momentum, there are plenty of anecdotal occurrences before and after the court date … especially Scout’s reactions to, and relationship with, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his movie debut), the reclusive ‘village idiot’ who turns out to be her salvation when she is attacked by a venomous bigot.”
July 8, 2015
I have a habit whereby I borrow books from the library, and yet I know I won’t be reading them because I don’t have time, what with the reading schedule already packed. But I want to pretend I can and will read them, and so I take them out of the library and look at them on a table in my house. Not stacks of them. Just a couple. It’s like renting an expensive diamond necklace that’s far beyond one’s financial means for ownership and wearing it for a night at an exclusive event. I once read somewhere that’s what celebrities do when they attend the Oscars. They wear the jewelry and take it back. For me, I keep the books and then take them back. The habit occasionally leads me to a purchase, thinking I’ll read the book during that fabled time we all hope for called “some day.” And so to share, here are three recently published books, two fiction and one non-fiction, currently in my house on loan from the library.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
A timely thriller you may have heard about, considering it’s made an appearance on The New York Times best-seller list in their Sunday Book Review. The narrative situation is an extreme drought in the American Southwest with states engaging in violence and corruption over the dwindling supply. Rumors of a game-changing water source come to light in Phoenix, prompting Las Vegas “water knife” Angel Velasquez, described on the dust jacket as detective, assassin and spy working for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to investigate the rumors. Why I borrowed the book: The thriller aspect, the timely concept and curiosity about the protagonist, as well as the near future setting, feel intriguing. Seems like a good summer selection for the beach, the pool or the porch.
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams) by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski
The Inklings met weekly in nearby pubs and the academic rooms of C. S. Lewis in Oxford, England. They were a group of friends and colleagues who (quoting from the publisher/dust jacket) discussed literature, religion, and ideas; read aloud from works in progress; took philosophical rambles through woods and fields; gave one another companionship and criticism; and, in the process, rewrote the cultural history of their times. The Zaleskis explain the reason for focusing on the four, out of the several Inklings, because they are the best known of the group and also the most original, as writers and thinkers. Why I borrowed the book: For 10 years with a beloved group of friends, I read the books of C. S. Lewis. Like the Inklings, we called ourselves The Clivers, for Clive Staples Lewis. I’ve read 45 pages into this 500+ page tome and have discovered it promises to be a wonderful book. I’ll probably buy it.
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
This is a Holocaust story narrated by a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto, thieving with other children for survival. He’s rescued by a doctor known throughout prewar Europe as an advocate of children’s rights, and in the story he’s in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. From the dust jacket: “Treblinka awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape — as his mentor suspected he could — to spread word about the atrocities?” Why I borrowed the book: No doubt a dark topic and difficult reading; however, commentary about the book indicates the story richly evolves into more than the darkness and that author Jim Shepard lightens it with the very human way he brings the characters to life. Also, there’s bravery. Also, I would like to get to know the work of Jim Shepard.
June 25, 2015
Author James Salter died on Friday, June 19. His death shocked his devoted fans, having nothing to do with it being unexpected. He was 90 years old. The shock has everything to do with recognizing what we’ve lost: A writer who created perfect sentences and characters that flowed altogether into engaging, beautiful and moving stories. The quality of his writing style, his history as a combat pilot during the Korean War, his enduring classic A Sport and a Pastime (1967) all speak to Salter’s rich life and literary legacy; and yet, many readers don’t know him. He’s been ubiquitously described as “a writer’s writer” and a favorite of critics. The New York Times obituary headline reads, “James Salter, a ‘Writer’s Writer’ Short on Sales but Long on Acclaim, Dies at 90.” Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda captured the essence of Salter in The Washington Post when he wrote, “He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”
With the media reacting to his death, I read many articles about James Salter this week, particularly to find out if something I recalled about the author was indeed true: that he once owned a bread company in Columbus, Ohio. I’d heard of it from a general conversation along the way, sometime, somewhere, many years ago, but it wasn’t until 2003 that it was confirmed during an unusual conversation at Barnes & Noble.
I approached the information desk to inquire if they had a copy of the then new book Lucky Girls: Stories (P.S.) by Nell Freudenberger. The man at the desk, tall, older, sophisticated, remarked, “Oh, that’s a very good book.” I rarely if ever encounter someone who knows literature at the B&N information desk, and by that I mean such a book as Freudenberger’s debut story collection that was relatively unknown and not among the popular books. My filter was off, and I blurted, “How would you know?” Not meaning to be rude, I made the comment in shock that he recognized the title, let alone that he had read the book. I was more trying to ask out of curiosity, “How and why do you know this book exists? Where did you hear about it?”
He didn’t flinch, rather kept looking up the title and said, “I read the books of authors who come out of the Iowa Writers Workshop.” That’s the creative writing program in Iowa City famous for graduating some of America’s best authors. I explained why I’d asked, and he agreed about the lack of literary knowledge at the information desk. He said, in so many words, he was a duck out of water and introduced himself as Dennis Howard. And then he said it, the astonishing statement that he knew James Salter and they had owned a bread company together.
It was called Pane. I remember the storefront on Columbus’ Grandview Avenue back in the 1990s. It was where Vino Vino, a restaurant and wine bar, is now located. A few years later at a used and rare bookstore, I purchased a first edition of James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories signed by Salter. Beneath his name he wrote, “Pane 1/19/95.” I never saw Dennis Howard again at that Barnes & Noble.
Of all that I read about James Salter this week, I only found this one reference to Pane and Ohio, in a New Yorker article from April 2013: “The movie money didn’t last; he lost a lot of it years ago when he and a friend opened a bakery in Ohio. The venture failed, sticking Salter with heavy debts and a heavy heart.”
If you’ve never read the work of James Salter, I recommend first reading his autobiography Burning the Days. It’s one of my favorite memoirs, as I was hooked by Salter’s stories about being a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, a writer in Manhattan and a script writer in Hollywood. The memoir is a treasure trove of books to put on the reading list from his mentions of authors he knew and books he read. I went on the hunt for two novels he mentions, now out of print: Disenchantment by C. E. Montague, recommended to Salter by his agent, and Lucy Crown by Irwin Shaw, of which Salter writes:
“[Irwin Shaw] had the most difficult time of his life with that book. It had taken four years. He wrote it as a play first but it was no good. Then he wrote a hundred pages of the book and again gave up, but his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins, persuaded him to go on. It eventually sold more copies than anything he ever wrote.”
I also recommend reading Salter’s short stories, such as in his collections Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and Last Night: Stories (2005), particularly the story “Last Night” in the latter. All That Is (2013), his final book and novel, spent time on The New York Times best-seller list but got mixed reviews.
Thank you for your wonderful books, James Salter. Rest in peace.
June 13, 2015
Every once in a while — but not very often — I read a book that’s so good I don’t stop to take notes. I also refrain from putting sticky notes beside significant passages for quick reference. I’m so caught up in what’s going on that any pause feels like too much of an interruption. The Defence is one of those books, a fast-paced, clever albeit far-fetched legal thriller set in New York City. I read it breathlessly, breezing through the concise chapters, filled with anticipation of what would happen next, riveted and wondering to the very end.
Within the first few pages, ex-con, trial lawyer, former alcoholic protagonist Eddie Flynn is kidnapped by Russian mobsters who’ve placed a bomb inside Eddie’s coat. Their boss, Olek Volchek, is on trial for murder, and Eddie, who hasn’t practiced law in a year, is being forced to represent him. To ensure cooperation, Volchek’s thugs have kidnapped Flynn’s 10-year-old daughter Amy.
Four different law firms already have said Volchek is impossible to defend. His case is a slam dunk for the impressive prosecutor, Miriam Sullivan. Her star witness, Little Benny, was the hit man hired by Volchek, and he got caught at the scene of the murder. Little Benny’s fully prepared to give up his boss. Volchek’s plan for Eddie is not to secure a verdict of innocence. He wants Eddie to bring the bomb into the courtroom and blow up Benny. Eddie, however, convinces Volchek to at least let him try to win the case. He has 31 hours to pull it off.
Eddie’s definitely in a bind, but being an ex-con, he’s got instincts, insights, quick-thinking and sticky fingers that allow him to manipulate his captors. His talents create surprising twists and turns, as do the many things Eddie discovers about Volchek and his men. Eddie’s back story of why he became a con artist, what caused him to leave the con game, how he became a trial lawyer and why he quit and became a drunk calls upon our sympathy and makes him all the more likable. Best of all, the way Eddie ticks makes him a fun guy to take us on this narrative roller-coaster ride filled with clever hi-jinks, scamming, conspiracies and a line-up of tense moments that feel like Eddie is doomed.
I’m not one to have patience with improbable scenarios. The exception, however, is when the plot construction and character composition is so well done I ignore that little voice inside my head that rings the implausible bell because, who cares! The tension never lets up in The Defence and, equally important, neither does the entertainment that includes a “turned” FBI agent, a jury consultant who reads lips, Ninja bikers and a Mafia strongman who goes by the name Lizard (you don’t want to know). Author Steve Cavanagh pulls it off brilliantly, while Eddie channels the advice of his father, a con man himself, who told Eddie to always “hold it together no matter what.” And he does.
Now comes the part where I may disappoint you, my fellow Americans. The Defence is published by Orion books in the United Kingdom and slated for publication by Flatiron Books (Macmillan) in the United States in 2016, according to an email from the author. That said, new and used copies can be purchased on Amazon, some shipping from the U.K. Readers who use the library, Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook will need to wait for the U.S. release.
Finally, a tip for readers who love mysteries, suspense and thrillers: The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City is where I found my copy of The Defence. I shop there as a book collector, able to get first editions of new, signed books by authors in the United Kingdom. They’ve sold out of The Defence; however, The Mysterious Bookshop has several Crime book clubs that might interest you, including The British Crime Collectors Club “for collectors of ‘true first editions’ published in the United Kingdom, as well as those who can’t wait for the US release date.” That would be me. Maybe it’s you, too.
June 7, 2015
In Another Country: Selected Stories introduces us to some uniquely powerful stories. The plots derive from everyday experiences, but the thematic focus hones in on a deeper life meaning. For many of the characters, this meaning is beyond their reach and so their souls become lost and leaden; and yet, for those connected to it, there is a rush of learning, a surge of strength, a flight into invention and a contented wisdom.
In the story “Tea at the Midland,” a woman having tea with her lover can’t take her eyes away from the wind surfers in the bay beyond their window. She sees intoxicating wonder by their freedom in the light, wind and water, but her lover wants her to see only him. He is festered with irritations. In the story “Loss,” a businessman caught in a relentless, successful existence watches his soul leave him during a presentation. And in “Memorial,” a college professor’s former student says, “…I think he directed me into plenitude and it’s up to me to grasp it, bear it, say how it was and is.”
Those who see the deeper meaning are portrayed as set apart, lonely and self-possessed, as is the college professor, whose funeral service is barely attended, and also Owen Shepperd in the story “The Cave.” Owen takes his girlfriend Lou Johnson to the limestone country of his childhood where he’s enchanted by the water underneath the rock. They reach a cave where they hear the waterfall that is the source for the limestone streams, but Owen’s insight alludes to a greater source in the whole world order of life. Indeed, he is aware of what author David Constantine describes as “the thinness of the habitable skin of the earth,” which means Owen is able to see into astonishing, sacred spaces.
“Why did you want to listen to it again? Lou asked. Because, Owen answered, I’ve often – and in some periods constantly – wanted to live as though I could always hear that cave. I don’t want to live forgetting there’s a noise like that.”
These are not stories to read all at once. They are too rich for that, demanding to be read one or maybe two at a time, allowing space so as to fully comprehend the intention of each story’s sequence of events.
Sanctuary is a must for these thoughtful and melancholy characters. It arrives in one story with the encompassing noise of trains that pass overhead; in another with poetry books delivered by the mailman; and in another by a persistent white horse. In the last story, Constantine paints a parallel of one world as a sanctuary from another world’s man-made chaos.
David Constantine is well-known in Britain for his award-winning poetry, translations and fiction. In Another Country: Selected Stories is his literary debut in the United States. The flawless prose pulls us in with the grace of meaningful and eye-opening poetry. It is a kind of excellence rarely published nowadays. The rewards of these stories come immediately, and then again, long after the last story, as if we’ve been struck with an aftershock of hope that we, too, can experience the noise in the cave and the white horse.
May 27, 2015
The Given World is curiously inviting. Not much in the action creates intrigue or question, and yet I couldn’t stop turning the pages. The narrator is a Montana woman named Riley, who physically lives forward into time but remains emotionally stuck in the disappearance of her older brother during the Vietnam War. Something about her, and the way she speaks, kept me reading.
The only time we see Riley and her older brother interacting is in one chapter, on the family farm, months before Mick leaves for college. It’s enough, though, because the scenes perfectly capture nine-year-old Riley enchanted by her protective, wiser brother. He is the center of her world. The day he begins packing for college, Riley throws stones at him from the roof of the house and then falls and injures herself. We understand how desperate she feels. Four years later, in 1968, when Riley is 13, the Army informs the family that Mick is missing in Vietnam.
We next read about Riley when she’s 16 years old, hooked on mescaline and romantically involved with Darrell, a young man from an Indian reservation near the farm. Darrell devastates her with news of his upcoming departure for Vietnam. Riley gets pregnant and leaves the baby with her parents, moving briefly to Missoula and then permanently to San Francisco. There she works as a driver for the San Francisco Chronicle and then as a bartender.
Riley gets caught in a vortex of incomprehensible loss, taking drugs, drinking and pushing people away, perpetuating a cycle of attachment and loss with those who come into her life. The cycle becomes routine, even predictable, which fulfills the thematic purpose of the story but in the middle slows it down, dampening the initial allure; however, the magic returns, when Riley leaves San Francisco.
Author Marian Palaia evokes, without overstatement, the turbulent atmosphere of the Vietnam era, the California drug culture and the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and ‘80s. She also adeptly inserts information about Riley’s brother, Mick, throughout the narrative, so we learn what happened to him — that he dropped out of college to enlist, and he fought with the 25th Infantry in Cu Chi as a tunnel rat.
Toward the end of the book, Riley heads back home to Montana. She makes no excuse to her parents for the many wrong choices she made, recognizing a broken heart for a brother who never returned from Vietnam does not deserve to be judged. In that, we hear her begin to move on, in this wise, debut novel with a hugely satisfying ending.
May 19, 2015
On June 17, the winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award will be announced. This is one of my favorite annual awards to watch, as it progresses through a phenomenally long long-list of nominated novels (142 this year) into a short-list of 10 that yields the winner. The IMPAC always provides a great reading list of novels, from which I’ve discovered brilliant authors from different countries, but it is more a personal favorite because of its premise: Nominations are made by librarians from around the world, those wonderful people who watch, know, present, recommend and curate books for the public to read. They see hundreds of books move through their lending institutions and can showcase those that may not be getting the attention they deserve.
Past International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winners have been Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas (2009), The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010) and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2011) – novels I’ve read and can recommend.
One requirement: In order to be considered for the IMPAC award, the novel must have be written in English or translated into English.
The 2015 shortlist below includes several titles that have been mentioned here on TLC. You’ll also find Richard Flanagan’s popular 2014 Man Booker Prize-winner among the candidates.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australian)
Nominated by four libraries from Australia and the United States
I recommended Burial Rites to several book groups. It’s a compelling story inspired by the real life fate of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young woman who was the last person to be executed (publicly beheaded) in Iceland in the early nineteenth century. She was condemned for murder. Prior to the execution, she was held in protective custody by the farm family of a government official. In the story, Agnes’ presence on the farm creates strife and challenge for the parents and their daughters, who wrestle with the convict’s sympathetic humanity. Among the librarian comments: “This meticulously researched novel provides a vivid voice for Agnes and those who shared her last days. Kent uses her powerfully drawn characters and compelling narrative to bring the time and events to life.”
Horses of God by Mahi Binebine (Moroccan)
Nominated by Chicago Public Library, United States
Translated from the French
This novel appeared on TLC in a list of books by French authors that I’d culled from the 2015 IMPAC longlist. It’s one of those novels that not only tells an engaging story but leaves the reader stunned by the awareness of how poverty and the promises of Islam can together create a young suicide bomber. It’s a phenomenal novel, brief (under 200 pages) and told in spare prose. BineBine focuses on four childhood friends growing up in the impoverished shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a suburb of Casablanca. The story has roots in fact: On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The comment from the Chicago library includes: “This novel by Moroccan author Binebine concerns young boys who become suicide bombers, and it upends much of what is often assumed about such lives.”
Someone by Alice McDermott (American)
Nominated by the Veria Central Public Library, Greece
I’m a big fan of Alice McDermott since a long time ago when I read her second novel, That Night. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. McDermott has written several more novels — I also loved Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award (1998). McDermott is an uncontested master when it comes to portraying everyday life among Irish Americans, as she does with Marie Commeford in Someone. Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews gave starred reviews to the novel, and it’s been praised to the heights by many readers. The librarian comment includes: “A novel that shows how indefinite and ordinary but also beautiful a life can be when you have someone to share it with.”
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Australian)
Nominated by four Australian libraries
Flanagan’s fictional take on the WWII Japanese POW experience and the “death railways” built in Burma is rooted in his father’s connection to the historical event. The protagonist is surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who struggles to treat and save suffering POWs working with him on the railroad. He is haunted by a love affair he had with his uncle’s wife two years earlier. Rave reviews abound; however, Kirkus Reviews came after Flanagan for flowery descriptions about the love affair, saying they border on the likes of a “swoon-worthy bodice ripper.” Among the librarians’ comments: “Flanagan’s novel explores love and death, the horror of war, and the nature of heroism.”
K by Bernardo Kucinski (Brazilian)
Nominated by two libraries from Brazil
Translated from the Portugese
K will be available in the United States on July 31. It’s the story of a father searching for his daughter who “disappeared” during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Forecasts for the novel prior to its American publication aren’t out there, from my search results, but from what the nominating librarian says, K promises to be an unforgettable page-turner. It’s based on a real story from the author’s life — Kucinski’s younger sister disappeared in 1973. From the book’s publisher, Latin America Bureau: “As the author says, ‘Everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened’.” From the librarians’ comments: “…a remarkable book written in sparse language hovering between memoir and novel, a compelling tale almost impossible to put down.”
Harvest by Jim Crace (British)
Nominated by a library from Switzerland and one from the United States
I’m not a big fan of Jim Crace due to personal taste, not professional critique. There’s something about his storytelling that, as a common reader, doesn’t appeal to me. I often think I should give his work another chance because he’s frequently among award nominees and his work is highly regarded. Harvest, for example, was also nominated for the 2014 Man Booker award. The story takes place in an isolated English farming village where the stable of the manor house burns down. Fingers are pointed at newcomers to the village. Witchcraft and revenge come into thematic play. Among the librarians’ comments: “…tightly plotted; less than a week passes from the moment smoke is sighted until the book’s fateful outcome, and yet once underway, we have the sense that everything is inevitable.”
Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine (French, Russian-born)
Nominated by Bibliothèque de la Part-Dieu, Lyon, France
I’ve made the comment here on TLC that Andreï Makine is an author whose work, given the time, I’d chain-read. After I finished his novel Music of Life, I only wanted to keep reading whatever he wrote. Brief Loves That Live Forever will be available to U.S. readers in August. The Guardian begins their review of the book with this: “Siberian-born Andreï Makine’s latest novel lives in the memory long after the last page is turned. In a series of interlocking episodes the narrator – like Makine, an orphan – guides us through the totalitarian world of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Makine’s prose is both spare and meditative, and leads us deep into the memories of a world that is now gone.” Among the librarian’s comments: “…sober and powerful style of history and love stories from the Soviet time to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prose of big sensibility, quiet in suggestion.”
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Irish)
Nominated by six libraries from Canada, Ireland, Britain and the United States
Within this novel are the stories of Frederick Douglass on an international lecture tour in Ireland in 1845; the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1919 by two WWI aviators headed for Ireland; and Senator George Mitchell’s 1998 peace talks in Northern Ireland. McCann weaves together the disparate stories into what many praised as a compelling narrative, much as he did with Let the Great World Spin, which won the 2011 IMPAC Award. Among the librarians’ comments: “TransAtlantic is a delight to read. Through writing that is both lyrically lush and detailed, the reader meets fascinating characters, historically grounded in the 19th and 20th centuries, who are deftly linked through their connections to Ireland and America.”
Sparta by Roxana Robinson (American)
Nominated by the San Diego Library, United States
With all the hub-bub over Phil Klay’s award-winning story collection about Iraq soldiers, Redeployment, I missed this novel about a soldier returning home from the same war after four years of duty. From the publisher’s description of Sparta: “His life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate: he can’t imagine his future, can’t recover his past, and can’t bring himself to occupy his present. As weeks turn into months, Conrad feels himself trapped in a life that’s constrictive and incomprehensible, and he fears that his growing rage will have irreparable consequences.” Lots of praise from the media, except Kirkus Reviews described it as “well-intentioned but flawed.” The librarian’s comment: “A searing portrayal of the experience of a classics scholar and Iraq war veteran who returns home from the war to find he no longer belongs in either world.”
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian)
Nominated by 11 libraries from Canada, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and the United States
Winner of the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Americanah tells the story of teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze who fall in love in Nigeria when it’s under military dictatorship. Everyone is leaving, including Ifemelu to study in the United States. Obinze is unable to join her and finds his way, illegally, to London. Years later they reconnect. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Soap-operatic in spots, but a fine adult love story with locations both exotic and familiar.” Among the librarians’ comments: “A love story, an immigration story, and a portrait of race in America. Authentic and captivating.”
April 22, 2015
These are the days that forecast and ramp up to summer blockbusters and beach reads. I don’t see a standout yet, as we had last year with All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s recent 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction; however, it’s early in the game.
Below are three novels and two books of non-fiction that caught my eye and interest. Maybe they’ll catch yours.
The Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser (June)
Charles Kaiser is a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. This is his third book of non-fiction and likely to be a big hit during this time of popular interest for World War II stories, both fiction and non-fiction. The Cost of Courage recounts the true story of the Boulloche family’s participation in the French resistance. According to the publisher, it is the first time the family has cooperated with an author to share their ordeal. A quick summary: Andre Boulloche, coordinating all the Resistance movements in the nine northern regions of France, was betrayed by an associate, arrested by the Gestapo and sent to (and survived) Nazi concentration camps. His sisters took over the fight of resistance until the end of the war. Publisher’s Weekly writes: “Kaiser’s use of Andre’s first-person narration can be distracting, but otherwise this is a riveting paean to unsung war heroes in occupied France.” Kirkus Reviews gives it a star and writes: “At once heroic and heartbreaking, this story leaves an indelible mark.” Kaiser’s website states: “The book is a nonfiction thriller, a love story, and a mini-history of World War II in Europe.”
The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey (May)
Black comedy and intrigue in this debut novel tell the story of 42-year-old Paddy Buckley who’s working for Gallagher’s, a funeral home in Dublin, Ireland. He’s involved in a hit-and-run that kills Donal Cullen, the brother of a notorious Irish mobster. From the publisher’s website: “The next morning, the Cullen family calls Gallagher’s to oversee the funeral arrangements. Paddy, to his dismay, is given the task of meeting with the grieving Vincent Cullen, Dublin’s crime boss, and Cullen’s entourage. When events go awry, Paddy is plunged into an unexpected eddy of intrigue, deceit, and treachery.” Kirkus Reviews writes: “Highly readable and entertaining, though far-fetched in key moments, the novel benefits especially from Massey’s mostly restrained, deadpan Irish sense of humor.” Massey is a third-generation undertaker who worked with his father for many years at the family firm in Dublin. The publisher describes the book as “by turns a thriller, a love story, and a black comedy of ill manners.”
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (May)
Kent Haruf, widely known for his best-seller Plain Song and for setting his novels in the fictional Holt, Colorado, died this past December at the age of 71, but not before completing Our Souls at Night. It tells the story of Addie Moore and Louis Waters who discover comfort with one another in their old age. They don’t know each other very well, but Addie asks Louis to sleep with her. It’s not a sexual proposition, rather a desire to get through the night with companionship. Needless to say, the small town’s gossip mill goes into high gear. This is a short narrative – under 200 pages. Publisher’s Weekly gives it a star and describes Our Souls at Night as a “gripping and tender novel.”
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (June)
The Little Paris Bookshop is a German best-seller newly translated into English. According to the author’s website, it has ranked among the top 10 novels on the best-seller list of Germany’s Spiegel magazine since May 2013 and has sold more than 500,000 copies. The novel tells the story of a bookseller, Jean Perdu, who sells books from a floating barge on the Seine. From the publisher’s website: Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.” Kirkus Reviews describes The Little Paris Bookshop as a charming novel.
Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan (June)
I love reading books that are collections of letters. The intimacy in the written voice, long lost these days with electronic mail and tweets, bring us into the interior worlds of those who are writing privately to each other. It’s like reading someone’s diary. This new collection documents a 13-year epistolary friendship between crime novelist Ross Macdonald, famous for his fictional Detective Lew Archer, and southern novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Optimist’s Daughter. I wonder: What brought them together? And what did they find in each other that kept them writing for 13 years? Kirkus Reviews gives the book a star, writing: “An intimate, luminous portrait of a friendship.”
April 7, 2015
I discovered the French-Russian author Andreï Makine among the French novels long-listed for the 2015 Dublin IMPAC Award. His nominated/newest book is Brief Loves That Live Forever, a collection of eight stories; however, after researching Makine’s bibliography, I decided to read an earlier work, Music of a Life. The novel’s story of Alexeï Berg, a promising classical pianist in Moscow during Stalin’s Reign of Terror, became a powerful, brief seduction during an afternoon I spent on a beach in south Florida. It is told as a look-back from two decades later, when the narrator happens upon Berg playing a piano in a train station. Berg shares with him his extraordinary story.
In a mere 109 pages, Makine’s lyric writing creates an ominous atmosphere of Soviet life and an astonishing story of a lost dream and human resilience. Alexeï Berg is forced to mature and survive amid great loss of family and career, yet he carries within his soul, secretly and unexpressed, an ongoing love for music. The dramatic change in his young life happens two days before his first concert performance after he leaves the final rehearsal. On his way home, he is passed by a man — not making eye contact, not stopping — who says, “Don’t go home.” Berg enters the building across the street from the apartment where he lives with his parents and, through the windows, sees a uniformed officer inside. He flees, stealing the family car and disappears into the escalation of World War II, assuming a dead Russian soldier’s identity.
The Independent in Britain wrote of Andreï Makine: “He is not interested in money and is among the rare breed of authors who refuse to take advance payments for their books. He is writing because he believes ‘that a book, in the words of his boy narrator, can remake the world with its beauty.'”
The above quote is from an interview that references the boy narrator in Le Testament Français, Makine’s fourth novel, published in the United States as Dreams of My Russian Summers. The story, considered to be autobiographical fiction, about a boy’s teen-aged years in the 1960’s and 1970’s, also seduces with deeply felt writing that’s richly evocative of Soviet life; however, the boy’s metaphysical pondering won’t capture every reader. He spends summers with his French-born grandmother, Charlotte Lemonnier, in a town at the edge of the Siberian steppe. He escapes dreamily into her stories about Paris in the early 20th century — stories about Proust, Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra’s visit, the 1910 flood and the death of French President Félix Faure. The events are preserved in articles and memorabilia stuffed into a suitcase. The contents, elaborated on by Charlotte, sweep the boy into an imagined world he can’t shake. He experiences a kind of beauty one feels and senses with incomprehensible, overwhelming depths that cannot be communicated. “The unsayable was essential,” he tells us, and it envelopes and isolates him.
The boy narrator is for the most part nameless throughout the novel, other than a one-time mention of his nickname, Frantsuz (the Russian word for a Frenchman), and at the end of the novel, Alyosha, an affectionate diminutive of the name Alexey. The boy eventually grows up and away from Charlotte, less enchanted by her repeated stories “from an Atlantis, engulfed by time” and more interested in his adolescent yearnings for women and adventures with classmates in Moscow. The stories of Paris, however, have changed him. So, too, has Charlotte, who in her own young life left Paris to be with her mother in Russia and suffered famine, brutal winters, Stalin’s purges and the chaos of war. She has introduced into her grandson’s life the duality of the Western world in all its allure and the Soviet world of cruel injustices, scarcities and violence. His wrestling with that dual love — one for that “essential beauty” and the other for his homeland — is a profound journey of wonder, hope and the eternal connection of things past and present.
Dreams of My Russian Summers received France’s top literary prizes, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Goncourt. It was the first time this double win had ever happened, but it didn’t come easily. Makine, born, raised and educated in the Soviet Union, found his way to Paris in 1987 where he lived the tough life of an impoverished writer who couldn’t get his work published. He wrote his books in French, but French publishers couldn’t believe such elegant writing in their language could come from the pen of a Russian. Eventually, a few books were published, but it wasn’t until 1995 that Andreï Makine became recognized with his award-winning Dreams of My Russian Summers.
Both Music of a Life and Dreams of My Russian Summers are translated from the French into English by Geoffrey Strachan.
Andreï Makine told The Independent: “…you have to understand that there are 26 different tenses in French, and the French can eat, walk and make love in these different dimensions of time. Whereas in Russian we only have the basic three — past, present and future, and this changes the way that we look at life.”
March 22, 2015
Olen Steinhauer is a New York Times best-selling author of spy novels. His newest book All the Old Knives got a mention here on TLC just a few weeks ago in a list of books coming out this spring. It’s all that the forecasts promised but a page-turner of a unique kind. It doesn’t grab you from the get-go, but hang on.
It begins with agent Henry Pelham from the CIA’s Vienna bureau traveling to meet retired agent Celia Favreau. They’re meeting for dinner in California’s idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea where Celia is now married, with two children. Henry intends to interrogate her. He believes Celia might have helped the enemy in a past incident. Complicating the situation is the fact they are former lovers.
This is a concisely told story in a compact novel you could read in an afternoon – and you just might want to do that. Steinhauer plays with our perception of the details in such a way that you may find yourself needing to revisit them if you don’t stick with the story all at once. While it starts slowly, this terrific spy novel builds with gradual tension and complexity.
At the heart of the drama is the hijacking of a Royal Jordanian airplane carrying 120 passengers and crew. It lands in Vienna with the hijackers refusing to negotiate. The crisis ends in complete disaster. Everyone on board the flight dies. Six years later, a terrorist picked up in Afghanistan claims a source inside the Vienna-based CIA helped the hijackers. Henry believes that person was likely Celia – and if not her, then she probably knew who it was. She married quickly after the disaster – within 7 months – suspiciously abandoning the agency and Henry for a man she hardly knew.
In the present time, she’s moved on, but Henry hasn’t. His continued desire for Celia influences his intent to interrogate her. Through the dinner at the elegant Carmel restaurant, she appears stoic, at times tearful, but never wavering over the decision she made to cut free from Henry and their work to have a better life. She’s disarmingly earnest, but Henry wonders if she’s still the professional manipulator he once knew.
Both, however, are trained in manipulation. Both are less than trustworthy. Those attributes affected their romance, and it affects their interaction over their gourmet meal as the chronology of the hijacking events unfold. Steinhauer exceptionally works with alternating perceptions between Celia and Henry — and also the transcript from Henry’s secret recording of their conversation. It’s smart, sophisticated, espionage storytelling with the velocity ramping into high gear in the last third of the book. There’s a shocking surprise that’s unnerving, and so well done you won’t forget it.